Councilmulls creation of airport committee

Published on Thu, Aug 4, 2005 by eg Olson & Tara Nelson

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Council mulls creation of airport committee

By Meg Olson & Tara Nelson

In a work session this past Monday night, the Blaine city council discussed what steps to take � if any � to form a citizen advisory committee that will study alternative uses to the Blaine airport.

�This is not to be an anti-airport committee,� Blaine mayor John Liebert told fellow council members, but what he is proposing is a committee to look at whether eliminating the airport and using the land for something different would be a better deal for the community.

Although no action was taken, the council agreed to discuss the topic further at the regular meeting scheduled for Monday, August 8 at 7 p.m. because city manager Gary Tomsic had scheduled a vacation. Until then, Liebert asked each council member to think about at least two possible community members to appoint to the committee.

Tomsic agreed.

�In the interim, you need to be thinking about who would be good members if we had a committee,� he said. �One option is a more bureaucratic approach, the other option is to find individuals from the private sector that have as much experience as we do.�

Bob Brunkow also agreed.

�Whoever�s going to be on this should have some experience with proposals and financial analysis,� he said.

Doug Fenton, who chaired the citizen�s airport advisory committee that looked at airport expansion possibilities, expressed concern about the possibility of forfeiting federal funding if alternatives to the expansion are pursued.

�We�re not going to get the money from the federal government if we�re not going to build an airport,� he said. �Let�s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.� Tomsic agreed.

�If you do anything besides an airport, you�re going to need a pretty strong partner to pull that off,� he said.

At the July 25 city council meeting, a week after the Blaine airport master plan was unveiled, recommending a $16 million expansion of the municipal airport using federal aviation administration (FAA) funds, Liebert asked for council support to direct staff to prepare for a study of airport land use alternatives.

�The airport master plan is saying we�re going to expand the airport and it�s going to bring in 16-some million dollars to this community,� Liebert said. �I�m saying let�s look at the alternatives for that land. We may find there are none.�

From the audience former airport commissioner Bob Anderson said the time for studies was over. �From a historical standpoint this analysis of the airport has gone on for 26 years,� he said. �There is a long history of to and fro.� Anderson referred to plans produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the city council proposed moving or closing the airport, and voters chose to leave it where it was. �Since then there has been plenty of time for other offers,� Anderson said. �Now we basically have a $19 million offer from the FAA on the table. It�s an offer no one can beat with an alternative offer.�

Patrick Rooney, a member of the citizen�s advisory group who worked with consultant Mark Napier developing the airport master plan, said the city should be prepared to answer questions about whether the airport is the best use of the property, and the three month period in which the FAA will review the master plan is the perfect time. �We can sit around and wait for the commotion or we can be proactive,� he said. Rooney said both the Port of Bellingham and private sector parties had expressed interest in the development possibilities of the airport land. �They need to be invited to the table,� he said. �They have extensive experience developing properties like this.�

When the time comes to ask the community which way to go, Rooney said the city had to offer more than a yes or no question on the airport. �You need to go to your constituents with this vision or another vision,� he said.

Port of Bellingham communications manager Carolyn Casey said the port was willing to help with information, but had no new vision to offer. �The Port of Bellingham wants the community to decide what they want,� she said.

�The port could do something with any property in Whatcom County if the community wanted it and it was economically feasible,� she said. Casey said it wasn�t possible to forecast the feasibility of any alternative use of the land without further analysis.

Casey said the port, which runs the Bellingham International Airport, had approached the city with an offer to provide information about the pros and cons of accepting federal airport development funding. �There are some things along the lines of once you accept this money you need to stay an airport forever and you can end up kind of boxed in,� she said.

While most city council members agreed the city needed more answers, they were not in agreement on what the question needed to be. �A few years ago we had a presentation about the cost of closing the airport. I�d like that to be part of it,� said Marsha Hawkins. �When we commissioned this study one of the elements we asked for the FAA declined was the economic analysis. I�d like to include that here, how does the airport economically affect the city,� said Bob Brunkow. Other council members suggested that making the study too broad would exceed the city�s resources in terms of both time and money

�In March I wanted this to happen and we could have been doing that at no harm to the FAA report,� Liebert said, �You people didn�t agree.�