Selling the current St. George airport site to the state is one idea that probably won't take flight, says Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"We haven't had a definitive discussion on how the economics will work" between the sale of the old airport and the cost of the new airport, Huntsman said. "I can't say I'd dismiss (the state buying the airport). But my knee-jerk reaction is no."

Washington County legislators recently made the purchase proposal to House GOP leaders. The 274-acre old airport site, located on top of a mesa overlooking downtown St. George, has been appraised at between $42 million and $46 million.

St. George already has $17.2 million in federal funds and a promise for another $90 million to build the $190 million replacement airport located about seven miles southeast of town.

Mayor Dan McArthur said he remains optimistic that the state will provide some kind of financial support for the new airport.

"Our whole goal is to get the airport built. The governor has always said the new airport is of vital economic importance to the entire state," McArthur said. "Our legislators are still hopeful. We are exploring any and all options."

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, says he doubts the state can now afford the $45 million or so price tag for the old airport site. The GOP leaders' doubts aren't going over well with St. George officials who are seeking financial aid from state taxpayers.

"There may be other options that don't include the state buying the entire airport site. It's a little early to say anything like that," Mortensen said. "We don't necessarily need the money this legislative session. We're still in discussions with our state legislators. There could be a lot of different options out there."

But any developer would have to wait four or five years after his purchase before he could start developing the old airport site, for that airport must keep operating until the new one is ready.

And House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, says any developer must "discount" his purchase price for the old airport because he's tying up money he can't get a return on for four or five years.

Thus, no private developer could afford to pay market value for the old airport.

Unfortunately, Curtis says, even though the state has a lot of extra cash this year, there also are many demands on that money. The state itself may not want to tie up monies for four or five years until the new airport is ready, especially since the general economic downturn across the country is making state revenues less secure, Curtis said.

St. George officials recently opened five bids from potential buyers and are seriously investigating two of them, said Marc Mortensen, St. George assistant city manager.

A potential hang-up for any buyer could be the fact that the title to the current airport land could not be released until the replacement airport is constructed and open for business in 2011. But the sooner St. George gets its financial package together, the earlier construction can start on the replacement airport, said Larry Bulloch, St. George public works director.

"We want to expedite it so we can take advantage of a favorable bidding climate. It's much more competitive right now," Bulloch said, adding one of the two bids could be selected and approved by the City Council within the next few weeks.

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