February 5, 2023
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Editorial: Airport leader helped South Coast lift off


Faced with a community whose utter contempt for the words “economic development” is legendary, Karen Ramsdell did something surprisingly entrepreneurial.

She cobbled together roughly $170 million in debt capital and government grants and gave the South Coast one of the greatest economic development tools ever invented — a spanking new airport.

With a $55 million terminal project, an airfield expanded with $109 million in federal grants, plentiful parking and a master plan that will guide it for another century, the Santa Barbara Airport is the envy of cities from Oxnard to Paso Robles. And in a community where the widening of a lane or the replacement of a single-family house can garner protests and lawsuits, barely a peep was heard as Ramsdell quietly went about her business.

Ramsdell, who announced her retirement after 37 years in city government including 26 as airport director, did a lot of bridge building along the way. Her airport plans included preserving 400 acres of the Goleta Slough, the largest such project on the South Coast. When Goleta became a separate city a decade ago, she forged an important alliance with the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce.

She could count on quiet but essential support from UC Santa Barbara, tourism leaders, creative types and the Central Coast technology community, since all rely on the Santa Barbara Airport for essential connections.

With airport leadership ever-conscious of the battle between business and environmentalists, the terminal was built to LEED Gold standards and the historic terminal from 1942 was moved, renovated and preserved.

Ramsdell persevered through cutbacks that cost Santa Barbara a United Express crew base and direct flights to San Jose. The city’s ambitious plan to lure Southwest Airlines to Santa Barbara did not materialize, but Frontier Airlines’ direct service to Denver is filling much of the void created by cutbacks at United and the termination of Delta’s fights to Salt Lake City.

The airport is by far the largest in the region with some 700,000 passengers a year. During the past decade Oxnard has lost its L.A. and Phoenix flights. San Luis Obispo, after severe cutbacks in service, is betting on a new Denver route to lift its fortunes. Santa Maria had added flights to Hawaii but said earlier this year those would be put on a hiatus. Paso Robles can only dream about scheduled service.

South Santa Barbara County is widely recognized as the “hole in the donut” when it comes to a formal region-wide economic development effort. But thanks in large part to Ramsdell and her entrepreneurial efforts, it is the Santa Barbara Airport that dominates the skies over the Central Coast.