Time to Take Wing for Central Wisconsin Airport

Jim RosenbergBy Jim Rosenberg

During the last year, the Central Wisconsin Airport board engaged solid experts to help map out the future of the facility. I’m a member of the board and I’ve flown the equivalent of a half dozen times around the world in the last two years out of CWA, so I’m not exactly a casual observer. With conservative growth projections of three percent annually, it is only a matter of time before we run out of space to accommodate both the air and ground traffic involved. In the years further out, the problem becomes magnified because once you start applying even small percentage increases to a larger base, the sheer numbers create some camel’s back-breaking possibilities.

The airport board rolled out the Central Wisconsin Airport Terminal Area Master Plan last summer and it is supported by Centergy — Central Wisconsin’s economic development alliance representing Marathon, Portage and Wood counties – along with a lot of area businesses and individuals, because it’s solid and important. It involves constructing an entirely new terminal and supporting facilities in the mid-field area, where there is sufficient room to provide for many decades of future growth. In addition to providing adequate space, constructing a modern facility in the mid-field area will also allow for current operations to gone on unimpeded until the new facilities are ready to occupy. Trying to cobble together improvements based on the current terminal would cost more money and produce smaller, less attractive, less state-of-the art and more costly facility before it is done.

-)The preliminary price tag is $58 million. That’s a lot of money, but federal and state funding combined with airport revenue streams are important components. The car parking lot alone at CWA generates more than $1 million a year now. There are also landing fees, space lease payments, passenger facility charges and other dependable sources of funding such as the Airport Improvement Program funds.

Central Wisconsin Airport hasn’t required a dime of local tax levy revenues for many years. Still, that $58 million figure is being waived around by detractors of the plan like a bloody tee shirt and CWA is being thrown in with other potential projects like the need to expand the Marathon County Jail, as if the projects had anything to do with each other. They don’t – and if people need to wait for guarantees to cover every dollar in the plan before committing to the vision, then they will never be satisfied.

Three times in the past six months, measures have been brought up at the Marathon County Board relating to the airport project. None were brought by the CWA board. The resolutions were designed to add process and to give unelected county staff the opportunity to gain more control of the policy implications. When staff was unsuccessful in getting a “second opinion” via a request for proposals from other firms to second-guess the Mead & Hunt plan, an attempt was made to push it back on the CWA board to come up with a lesser alternative than its own recommendation. The Marathon County Board wisely deferred action on that proposal by unanimously voting to pull it from the agenda in January. Marathon County has not even comprehensively evaluated the financial implications of the CWA Terminal Area Master Plan yet. Wouldn’t it make sense to understand what would be involved in implementing the preferred alternative before demanding a “cheaper model”?

The fact is that Marathon and Portage counties would be paying for a minority of this project under even the most pessimistic scenarios and the project could be totally funded by airport revenue streams under the most optimistic possibilities. As the majority owner, Marathon County needs to take the lead on this issue. This project will take time and the time to move forward is now, with this region’s congressman chairing the House Appropriations Committee and our state senator co-chairing the Joint Finance Committee. Those aren’t guarantees of anything except that there will probably never be a better alignment of important political resources to advance a far-reaching plan to reconstruct one of this area’s most critical global gateways for commerce, industry and the people of Central Wisconsin.

The plan can be viewed online at:


There is a link to the PDF document in the lower left corner of the home page. Please encourage your county board representative to look for ways to get this important long-term transportation infrastructure investment accomplished instead of allowing the kind of negative thinking and foot-dragging that will inevitably lead to higher costs — and quite possibly, a lesser outcome. It not only can be done, but it should be.


4 responses to “Time to Take Wing for Central Wisconsin Airport

  1. I have been reading some of the press on this, and have heard the statements about why should the airport get money when the nursing home is in the red and why should the airport get money instead of the jail.

    One important point that seams to get lost is that the airport has not cost tax payers a dime in some time. It has generated enough revenues for some time pay for itself. How many other government programs can say that?

    If the airport could go out and borrow the money, it would. But because of legal and government issues that are above my pay-grade, any money borrowed would have to be done through the county. (Sort of when you bought your first car, it had to go through your parents because the banks laughed at you.. you made the payments, but the loan is in your folks’ name.)

    I find it interesting that county government is deciding its best to shun and back-burner an items that is actually generating revenue instead of being a cash vacuum.

  2. A good airport brings people to us and is good for those who live here too. Its easier to live in a small town if the travel out is convenient. Go for this project!

  3. As someone who has spent the better part of his adult life in airports, I say honestly the CWA needs to be imporoved. It is hoplessly antiquated. It cannot attract carriers like this, and I would think carriers are the lifeblood.

    So I took a look at hte PdF, I took a look at the website.

    Why not really try something…why not try solar, or defraying the cost by embracing the idea of being carbon negative…or anything other than this same crappy discussion about taxes and how much this and how much that…

    You want people to accept this spending, so make it sexy. Say, yes, we are going to build a new airport, and we will be adding a wind power field, and defraying the costs by doing this or that.

    OHare has a lawn on its roof. It uses the water to cool the terminal. Why not do something like that?

    Why not commit to CWA being the first WiMax facility in Wisconsin, the cost would be in the tens of thousands of dollars, and you could say your doing something innovative and flashy.

    But I will say this as well, who cares. I drive to Milwaukee or I drive to Portage and hope the train to Chicago. It costs me hundreds less.

    I say this…make it a priority, but make our city one first. An airport like CWA is such a pro business thing, I believe that the corporate hangers take up more space than the public ones.

  4. You make some good points. We aren’t into the design phase of the terminal yet. At this point, we are conceptualizing and trying to gain buy-in to the idea that we want to do something significant instead of just continuing with band-aid approaches that will end up throwing good money after bad over time. Your ideas are consistent with reaching for excellence and that is certainly where I want to be on this.

    CWA is the commercial passenger airport for the region and serves some general aviation needs, too. The Wausau Downtown Airport is exclusively a general aviation facility. Both are assets to the community and both types of aviation serve important markets/constituencies in terms of economic development assets. I served on the Wausau Downtown Airport committee prior to moving to the CWA board.

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