SARANAC LAKE - In office for a mere three weeks, Democratic Congressman Bill Owens is facing his first in-district challenge: the growing rift between Harrietstown and Plattsburgh regarding the future provider of air service to the Adirondack Regional and Plattsburgh International airports.
And Owens is apparently using his influence by trying to strike a deal that will work for everyone.
The two facilities are currently under a single federal Essential Air Service contract through the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and therefore must have the same regional airline provider.
Looking for more growth opportunities, the Clinton County Board of Legislators is considering changing airlines from Cape Air to Colgan Air.
County legislators argue that Colgan's larger jet aircraft would allow Plattsburgh International to grow far beyond the limits of the nine-seat turboprops currently employed by Cape Air.
But Harrietstown officials and business organizations argue that although the change may benefit Plattsburgh, Cape Air is the best fit for the Adirondack Regional Airport.
And along with elected state officials, Owens has been in negotiations with DOT for several days, with the hopes of creating separate and independent EAS contracts.
Owens' spokesman Jon Boughtin told WNBZ that negotiations are ongoing and that the Congressman will do everything in his power to see that the needs of both communities are well served.
"Congressman Owens has spoken with both communities and the Department of Transportation to see where he can be helpful in making sure that this works out well for Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh," Boughtin said.
Harrietstown Supervisor Larry Miller said Monday he had previously asked U.S. DOT to split the two-year contracts - which will be up for renewal in February - but was told that such an occurrence is a rarity.
But after discussing the issue with Owens and allowing some time for the wheels of government to move, Miller noticed a different tenor from the federal officials.
"I have been trying to reach Bill Owens and he finally called me back at about 1:30 or 2 p.m. He told me that his intention as our Congressman is that he is pushing for U.S. DOT to do two separate bids," Miller said. "When I spoke to DOT on Friday, they told me that they wouldn't consider separate contracts. But someone must be changing their minds because when I spoke with them today, I was told that they are considering two separate contracts."
Officials said that if DOT allows for the contracts to be split, it would be a precedent-setting move.
According to Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Sylvie Nelson, who has been lobbying heavily for Cape Air, the number of airline passengers has tripled at Adirondack Regional since Cape Air took the helm.
During election season, Owens's work at Plattsburgh International was a significant portion of his job creation platform.
The EAS program was adopted by the federal government in 1992 as a means to incentivize airline service to rural, regional airports.
Cape Air currently dominates the EAS market in New York State, being the benefactor of five of the six qualified airports in the state. Only Chautauqua-Jamestown Regional Airport has a different provider.
According to U.S. DOT, in the current year, Cape Air has received $1.43 million for service to Adirondack Regional and $1.38 million for service to Plattsburgh International.