More air service to more locations has been a constant drum beat for many in this valley for over a decade. In 2012 the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce as part of their Whitefish 2020 project, led by Kevin Gartland, Paul Johannsen and many others decided to take a proactive approach to meet this challenge and created Glacier AERO. After researching how Jackson, Wyoming, had increased their air service with a financial tool called a Minimum Revenue Guarantee (MRG) and working with a consultant they began to fundraise to create a fund to be used for MRGs in the Flathead. The idea with MRGs is that funds from a nonprofit group invested by local businesses guarantee an airline a minimum revenue on a new flight for a fixed number of weeks, insuring the airline against loss until the route is established and profitable, thus encouraging the airline to try new markets with minimum risk.
In 2012 fundraising was kicked off with Dan Graves from Whitefish Mountain Resort and Rick Cunningham of Big Mountain Commercial Association leading the investment. The hospitals, banks and chambers, Flathead Electric Cooperative, Northwest Montana Association of Realtors and many others followed suit. More community leaders joined the board and soon businesses and individuals who saw the long-term benefit of more non-stop flights gathered enough funds to begin negotiating with United Airlines to add more planes and seats.
To secure more non-stop flights from new hubs, Glacier AERO negotiates with airlines by promising to provide either an MRG or out-of-state, area-specific marketing to stimulate demand for air travel to Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA). Every year the number of flights and seats available increases.
Glacier AERO’s newest success is the daily, American Airline non-stop flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Chicago, which are scheduled to begin on June 6. American Airlines joins United, Delta, Allegiant and Alaska in serving GPIA. Glacier AERO has also guaranteed the winter flight to Chicago by United for the last 5 years. If you travel to Dallas, Los Angeles or Chicago you may see the new Flathead Valley marketing campaign created by Glacier AERO and our partners the Kalispell and Whitefish convention and visitor bureaus, the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development and Glacier Country.
A dozen businesses like Glacier and First Interstate banks have faithfully contributed to AERO annually while over 60 businesses supported its establishment in 2012. In 2018, 62 businesses and individuals again financially supported the effort to recruit American Airlines, including 20 individuals who split their time between Texas and Montana and saw the opportunity for what I like to call “self-interested altruism” and made large contributions to AERO. This type of forward-thinking benefits all types of businesses as well as residents of the Flathead Valley who depend on air service to travel for work or pleasure or depend on visitors for the well-being of their business.
One way to think about economic development is to see it as a tool for a community that incentivize a business to undertake activities that benefits the entire community, something that would otherwise seem too risky or just not pencil if a single business took the chance alone. For a community to be successful at this type of endeavor requires leadership, vision and a willingness to take a risk. It also takes some investment in research and analysis to ensure that the idea has merit and scarce resources are not being wasted with little chance of benefit. The expected return on investment for the community should be demonstrable. Solving problems with innovation in economic development is a team sport and works best when smart people put their heads together and cooperate for the greater good. Luckily for the Flathead Valley, that is what happened when Glacier AERO was formed by private businesses and public organizations demonstrating the real value of public private partnerships.
I truly believe that “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” On June 6 the Flathead Valley will again get lucky because a group of smart people and a large number of businesses and individuals were prepared when American Airlines knocked on our door with an enticing opportunity. I hope that you, or a loved one or a customer or valued employee will take advantage of one of these new direct flights soon. Please take just one minute to appreciate how these new connections made your day or your business just a little bit better and the team effort that made it possible.
Kim Morisaki is the business development director at Montana West Economic Development, economic gardener, strategic doer and entrepreneur enthusiast.
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