Airport could be an asset, but it could be a waste

Published on Thu, Oct 3, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Airport could be an asset, but it could be a waste

By Meg Olson

Airport consultant David Ketchum gave Blaine city council five options for the future of the airport, but it came down to fix it or forget it.

“I’m an airport advocate but if it’s going to continue to be a default airport I’d say save your money,” he said. “If the airport continues in its current role is it really earning its keep in the city core? To expand the airport there needs to be an acceptance on the part of the community that this is a viable part of the community, not just a place to land and take off but a larger commercial and industrial facility that happens to serve some recreational fliers. Can an airport like Blaine, given its surroundings and circumstance, turn into that kind of vital facility? I’ve seen it happen.”

Ketchum’s company Airspace was hired by the city to draft a feasibility study looking at the airport’s future and the possibility of extending the runway 1,400 feet and acquiring more land for commercial and industrial development. Options he is examining include no action, improving the airport in its current conformation, moving it out of downtown, expanding it or closing it.

In his preliminary report to council and airport commissioners September 30, Ketchum described some sizeable practical and financial hurdles to expanding the airport.

If the airport is to conform to federal standards, which would qualify it for federal funding, it will need to make some changes, Ketchum said. “I saw some issues that, no matter what you decide to do will make your airport safer,” he said. For example, the buffer around the airport is not large enough, Ketchum said. “In its current configuration the runway safety zone extends over Pipeline Road and this represents a liability,” he said. “If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gets involved with funding I can guarantee it to be an issue. The ability to adhere to geometric standards is a core issue.”

For a longer runway and greater safety buffers the airport will need to acquire more land to the south of the existing facility. “This area is a category two wetland, and that brings a whole bunch of issues into the picture,” Ketchum said. The city might also have to consider closing Pipeline Road to extend the runway.

One hurdle the airport had made it over is to be added to the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) list. The federal list includes all airports in the United States whose existence is considered to be in national interest. Being on the NPIAS list is also a pre-requisite for federal grant funding. Ketchum said both federal and state dollars were available for airports to expand if they met standards and selection criteria. “Being on NPIAS is not a guarantee of funding,” he warned.

While he didn’t present cost estimates to expand the airport, Ketchum indicated it would not be a small pricetag. “The real issue here is what does it take to do it and where’s the money going to come from, presuming there’s a will on the part of the community to do it,” he said. To do it would likely require a grant from the FAA, and the FAA requires anextensive and expensive master planning process. “It could be a two year process if you began immediately.”

Also, the city would have to demonstrate a need for a bigger airport: local businesses hampered by the unavailability of certain air services, commercial air service willing to use the airport, or safety risks for a preponderance of the airport users due to planes designed for a bigger facility. “We’re a long way from showing a demonstrated need,” Ketchum said, adding that wanting a bigger airport as a stimulus for the local economy wasn’t good enough.

“The demonstrated need is a two-headed monster,” said airport commissioner Bob Anderson. “A lot of people have indicated an interest in using the airport but won’t until it’s improved.” He added the removal of trees at the south end of the runway will get more users to the airport who now avoid it because of the flight path obstruction.

Ketchum said the issue of demonstrated need was the FAA’s way of justifying their awards, and enthusiasm was a possible substitute. “Could we access funds with the existing situation? It’s possible but the community would need to be solidly behind it,” he said. “It would take every string being pulled I can think of.”

Ketchum said he expects to complete the report in one or two weeks. Mayor Dieter Schugt asked if a public participation process could come next. “The community has been divided in the past,” he said. “The facility has been perceived as just for a few people rather than a viable economic asset.” Fellow council members agreed. “I’d rather open up that can of worms now before we commit to an expensive master plan,” said John Liebert.
Airport commissioner Doug Fenton said expansion plans were intended to increase the value of the airport to the whole community. “Our vision is not to make this a bigger airport for rich people,” he said. “We have no wish for a bigger toy in the heart of town. We want to make the airport more viable. Blaine needs a kick in the ass and this could be it.” He said a key component to the expansion was development of commercial facilities linked to the airport and an adjacent industrial park.

Anderson said in other cities the airport has been the engine driving economic recovery, and Ketchum agreed to include information about such cities in his final report and a public presentation, to be scheduled later. “We see it repeatedly where that mix comes together and it magically happens,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to see that sitting here in Blaine with that tired old airport out there. I wish people here could see the difference an airport can make.”.

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