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The 'other white meat' meets the runway

Image: Elkhart Municipal Airport

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Joe Forys looks out over Elkhart Municipal Airport from its tower. Forys worked for the FAA at the airport in South Bend until he was fired in 1981 by President Reagan. After several years of doing a "little bit of everything," Forys was hired by the city of Elkhart in 1989 as an air traffic controller. This image is a stitched composite of several frames.

In this city where President Barack Obama championed a federal stimulus bill free of "earmarks" and "pork," some elected officials and citizens are questioning whether the first "shovel-ready" project here to be funded by the legislation – a $4.2 million resurfacing of a runway at the Elkhart Municipal Airport – meets that promise.

It's an argument being played out in various forms around the nation as the money from the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Obama signed on Feb. 19 begins trickling down to the local level. (Click here to read msnbc.com reporter Tom Curry's account of how the money is making its way to Elkhart.) It often wears partisan garb, but at its heart is the vexing question of how you define "pork" and "earmarks" -- terms commonly equated with hogs at the trough.

As Associated Press reporter Calvin Woodward explained in a Feb. 9 article titled "Obama has it both ways on pork," the Elkhart runway resurfacing and other projects that will benefit from the surge in federal spending are technically not earmarks. But that's not to say that they are pork-free.

"There are no 'earmarks,' as they are usually defined, inserted by lawmakers in the bill," he wrote. "Still, some of the projects bear the prime characteristics of pork tailored to benefit specific interests or to have thinly disguised links to local projects."

This Pro Publica article -- published on msnbc.com also before the legislation was finalized – also detailed numerous provisions and exemptions intended to benefit special interests or specific businesses or industries.

In Elkhart's case, the question boils down to whether the airport project benefits the few or the many.
There is no debate about whether the 6,500-foot runway needs resurfacing – it has visible cracks that are sprouting weeds. (Click here to read the Elkhart Truth's story on the airport resurfacing project.)

But there is plenty of discussion over the wisdom of spending federal money on it when the city with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates has so many other more-pressing needs. (Click here to read msnbc.com reporter Bill Dedman's piece on U.S. cities that resist recession and Elkhart's spiraling job loss problem.)

David Henke, one of three Republicans on Elkhart's nine-member Common Council, said he has two problems with the project.

"It's a little surprising to see stimulus money go to an airport that 99.9 percent of the citizens do not access," he said, referring to the fact that the airport is used by private and corporate aircraft and a few charter operations but has no commercial service. "The second point is that the stimulus should be used exclusively for long-term job reclamation. Repaving is going to help some contractors … but at the end of the day, once the project is done, the jobs are gone. It's not going to bring in new planes, it's not going to bring any new revenue."

Mayor Dick Moore, a Democrat who set the agenda for applications for stimulus funding, responds that such criticism misses the mark because the funds came from a $1.1 billion pool dedicated to airport renovation or maintenance and could not be used for other purposes.

"I guess we could've turned the money down, but we were at the top of the list because we already had filed with the FAA," he said. "… We would have eventually done it at great expense, with local dollars or by getting a grant and having to come up with matching funds."

He and Andy Jones, the airport's general manager, stress that the airport creates badly needed jobs throughout the city.

Image: Elkhart airport

John Brecher / msnbc.com

Andy Jones

"Flying commercial eats up a lot of time for these executives; a lot of times it's really cheaper for them to be able to move in and out of where they do business quickly and efficiently," explained Jones.

Moore adds that while the airport's economic benefit to the city may be incalculable, it is not insubstantial when it leads to deals being finalized with local suppliers.

"When they fly away, what did they leave behind?" he wondered, musing about the departure of executives after such a meeting. "An order for the $3 million or $4 million?"

Beyond that, the mayor estimates that the runway repair alone will provide 250 short-term jobs, a number that strikes critics as too high but may not be far from the mark, according to Gene Yarkie, regional vice president with Rieth Riley Construction Co., Inc., which plans to bid on the project.

"A project like that seems quick and easy, but there are a lot of steps along the way that go into getting that to the runway or highway -- aggregates have to be mined, processed, trucked and then applied," he said. "A lot of jobs are created along the way."

Slowly boiling beneath the current debate about the runway project is a bigger question about the airport's net benefit to the city.

Henke, the city councilman, said the airport runs an annual deficit of $675,000 – an expense that is born by city taxpayers. That leads some to question whether Elkhart even needs an airport, especially since there is a regional airport just 15 minutes away in South Bend, which offers nonstop flights to Atlanta, New York and other big cities.

Henke said he does not count himself among them.

"I'm not saying I'm anti-airport, but what I am saying is you've got to be smart about your investments," he said. "If you' own a lake cottage and you're behind on your payments, this is not a time to put an addition on."

How is your city, county or state spending its share of its stimulus funding? Do you agree with the priorities that have been set for the money? Do you even know where it's going? Have you tried to get information about where the stimulus money is going and been frustrated? Please share your thoughts or experiences in the comments section below.