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Will Utah keep Wendover afloat?

"Psst. Hey, mister. Want to buy a city?"

OK, so things really aren't that bad yet in this small western Utah community of about 1,600, where the major asset is a small municipal airport with an unfinished runway that is $8.8 million in debt.But Wendover and Tooele County officials are working feverishly behind the scenes at the Utah Legislature to arrange a $3 million appropriation to stave off a suit from the runway contractor.

And they only have eight working days left to cut the deal.

The city owes the contractor about $4 million, and a suit for that amount could bankrupt the city and force it to disincorporate because of financial insolvency.

But Art Martines, Wend-over's city manager, says he's optimistic state lawmakers will step up and help fund the bailout.

"One reason is that the governor has recommended $237 million in bonding," he said, much of which is earmarked for transportation purposes. "We think this airport is important to the Wasatch Front . . . and I believe legislators are starting to realize that."

Martines noted the airport is used by the Air Force as an auxiliary landing strip and said it could also serve the Wasatch Front well during the 2002 Winter Olympics, storing aircraft and helping handle excess air traffic.

In addition, he said a finished runway may help resurrect a now-defunct "fly" program that hauled gamblers to Wendover, Nev., casinos on charter aircraft.

While the gambling money went to Nevada, the airport-related revenues from those charters was used to provide about 40 percent of the city's small budget of less than a half million dollars.

That revenue stream went dry last year when the air carrier that offered the flights lost its federal certification. No other carrier was found to take its place, however, and Stateline-Silver Smith casino officials finally decided to quit bankrolling the "fly" program.

But the city had already begun work on the new $8.8 million runway to support the charter flights program, using future landing fee revenues as collateral to secure construction loans.

Now there's no revenue, and Gibbons and Reed, the construction company hired to build the runway, is owed some $4 million for work already done. The company has halted work on the project and plans to sue if the Legislature doesn't bail out Wendover.

Tooele County Commissioner Gary Griffith said a $3 million state appropriation would allow Wendover to borrow an additional $2.5 million - with Tooele County co-signing on the loan - to finish the new 150-foot by 10,000-foot runway sometime this year.

Once the runway is completed, the city will be eligible for up to $5 million in Federal Aviation Administration grants that could be used to pay back the $2.5 million plus construction loans from Key Bank and the county.

Griffith said he believes the airport project should be viewed as an economic development project rather than a charity case.

A finished airport would help the casinos, the commissioner admitted, but it would also help the city and county was well as the Wasatch Front business community that supplies the bulk of goods and services consumed by workers and residents of both Wendovers.

"This is the one asset that little town has that will help it become a player" in Utah's economy, Griffith said. "It will eventually provide the means for Wendover to become independent.

"Give the airport a chance, and it will be the thing that defines that town," he added, "But there's always a risk."

Bruce McGowan, general manager for Gibbons and Reed, says his company hopes Wendover's legislative gamble pays off. "If we see (an acceptable financial) plan soon, that will buy them some time," he said.

And if it's apparent the county is intent on making the plan work, McGowan added, Gibbons and Reed is willing "to give the state till the end of the session to come up with the funds."

Griffith said that despite intense funding demands being made on Utah lawmakers in the closing days of the session, he doesn't think a Wendover bailout is the long shot it might appear.

"Personally, I really think it (the bailout plan) has a 50-50 chance," he added. "I think there's an interest in the Legislature in not seeing that airport go down."

The 50-50 figure also sticks in the mind of Chris Melville, who works part time as the city's airport manager and full time as president and chief executive officer of Icarus Aviation, which provides fueling and other services.

He's watched airport business dwindle drastically since the air charter service ended, and he figures there's about about a 50-50 chance of seeing it restored if the runway is finished.

"But a lot of work will have to be done before that happens," Melville added. "The Stateline (Casino) probably won't do it again."

Former mayor Deborah Morgan said Stateline-Silver Smith officials told the city last winter it would probably be a year before they reconsider another charter program.

"The other casinos said no," she added, "but that was then. Somebody should really do it, because it's a good program."

Martines said the answer may lie in forming a coalition between government and private business to breathe new life into the moribund air charter program.

But it would take a partnership that includes officials of Tooele and Alto (Nevada) counties, both cities and all five casinos in order to make it work, he added.

"The casinos could provide package deals, the counties would get room taxes and we would get the income from landing fees and fuel," he said. "Everybody would profit, directly or indirectly."

One thing all parties agree on, however, is that the future of the city will be dicey if the Legislature decides not to ante up the $3 million to bail the city out.