Growing airport needs $5 million in next decade
By Meg Olson
If the Blaine airport is going to stay open as the city grows, the airport should grow with it, said airport commission chairman Doug Fenton in support of a capital facilities plan that would see $2.5 million in improvements to the Blaine airport in the next six-years.
The plan also includes a $2 million wish-list of future needs, from a longer runway and land for development to relocating flight operations and the pilots lounge. This is a wish list to show the council our long range goals that will hopefully coincide with those of the council and the public, Fenton told city council members at their March 12 meeting.
The vote to approve the capital facilities plan underlined some council members growing discomfort with the airport. Personally, the airport is fading from my vision of this community, said Frank Bresnan Jr. who voted against the plan. I see here $4.5 million in improvements, largely dependent on grants which require matching funds, all for 12 or 13 airplanes. My vision is more of jobs and revenue building a tax base. I think that land is some of the most valuable in our community and could be put to better use. Fellow council member John Liebert abstained on the vote, saying he had reservations about the airport when there were other alternatives for the land, including the potential for development into a business park as suggested in a meeting with the Port of Bellingham last year.
Mayor John Hobberlin said eliminating the airport wasnt as easy as it looked. When you discuss the airport you need to look at the long-term leases there and leasehold improvements that would need to be paid out, grants specifically for aviation that would need to be paid back, he said. The city could sell that land off and not see a dime. A 1982 Superior Court judgement ruled the city would be responsible for relocation costs and reimbursement for leasehold improvements and profits lost should the airport be phased out.
Hobberlin also pointed out that citizens had repeatedly voted to keep the airport. It would be presumptuous for council to now unilaterally decide the airport is not part of our vision, he said. At least twice in the past, most recently in 1992, Blaine voters elected to keep the airport.
Other council members joined Hobberlin to support the plan after being reassured that doing so did not constitute a promise for funding. Those final decisions will rest with the council during the budget process, said city manager Gary Tomsic. One advantage of having this plan is that it allows us to continue to work with the state department of aviation on our granting plan.
The majority of the projects listed in the plan are primarily grant funded, with the city contributing from 5 to 30 percent of the cost through cash or in-kind contributions. Most grant funding is anticipated through the state department of transportations aviation division, specifically targeting projects that would improve airport safety such as tree removal, wildlife hazards and pavement maintenance. The plan also proposes to request an annual maintenance stipend from the state to come from dollars collected through a tax on aviation fuel.
Tomsic suggested having bigger, long-range goals included in the plan gave council an opportunity to consider how they see the future of the airport. He said plans to expand the airport through land acquisition needed to be evaluated in the context of the citys overall evolution. The cost of the expansion of the airport needs to be given more attention than its being given in this plan, he said. We need to take our time in making a determination of how an expanded airport fits into our overall city vision.