Airportalternatives committee gets underway

Published on Thu, Feb 2, 2006 by eg Olson

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Airport alternatives committee gets underway

By Meg Olson

The city’s airport alternatives committee will be opening up the discussion of what benefits the city could realize if the airport went away. The airport commission meanwhile will be preparing its own report on the benefits of an expanded airport.

“We’re encouraging people to think,” said city manager Gary Tomsic who provides staff support to the nine members of the advisory committee undertaking the voter-mandated exploration of alternatives to an airport for the 33 acres of city owned-land east of the truck route and south of H Street.

Tomsic said the committee was not part of the ongoing debate about whether or not to close the airport. “They’re just looking at it as if the city had 33 acres of vacant land and what do we do with it,” he said. At their meeting last week Tomsic said both public and private uses for the land were brought up. “We hadn’t really thought too much about the possibilities for public uses, such as an expanded school or sports facilities,” Tomsic said.

To get a wider variety of ideas committee members asked for a public meeting to look specifically at what possible non-aviation uses for the land, and how they would benefit the city. “This is not a meeting about whether or not we should have an airport,” Tomsic said. “We are not going to debate whether ideas are good or not, we just want to get them all out there.” The meeting is scheduled for February 16 at 7 p.m. at the community center.

The committee also asked Tomsic to get input from local developers
about what they thought could be economically beneficial uses for the property, and would they be willing to participate in a project to convert the airport land. Tomsic said he was moving forward but a weakness of the approach was they couldn’t expect developers to put too much into looking at the feasibility of a project that might never get off the ground.

“We aren’t going in with any kind of promises because we’re not in a position to offer them the land, so we’re really asking these folks to donate their knowledge and help us out,” Tomsic said. There is also the possibility of asking a consultant to study the feasibility of ideas proposed by the development community and the community at large,
Tomsic added.

On the other side of the issue the airport commission is preparing an
assessment of what kind of economic and non-economic benefits the community would realize if the $16.5 million airport expansion goes forward. “We’re looking primarily at the non-economic now,” said commission chairman Doug Fenton. ”I think the non-economic benefits have been beaten to death.”

In the ongoing struggle to defend the facility and the need to improve it, the airport commission has repeatedly emphasized that the upgrades, paid for almost completely by federal, state and private funding, will make the airport safer, more useable and able to bring more services to the community, including medical evacuation flights and commuter air service. Fenton said that their work now was focused on how that more useable airport will bring in more economic opportunities.

“The land around the airport that has been for sale since the 1990s,” Fenton said. “We believe if there was an airport next door that could handle limited air freight it will encourage manufacturing uses to locate there.”

The biggest initial benefit of the airport expansion, Fenton said, will be the relocation of the runway south of Boblett Street and away from the schools and the busy H Street and SR 543 intersection. “That’s going to free up all of that property between Boblett and H streets,” he said. The third that fronts on H Street could be available for sale to developers and the remaining two thirds in the runway protection zone could be leased out. “It could bring in substantial revenue for the city,” Fenton said.

While they don’t have a public meeting scheduled Fenton said the airport commission would be asking for public input about possible uses that would fit in with an airport. “Friday Harbor’s airport has a community college,” he said. “Maybe someone has a brilliant idea for us.”

Later this year reports from both the airport commission and the alternatives committee will come to city council for a decision, joined by a third and critical component. City attorney John Sitkin is preparing his own report on whether or not the city can afford to close the airport, given the variety of lease, contract and grant obligations.
“Ultimately the city council will make the decision as far as whether to continue to operate an airport in Blaine,” Tomsic said. “The other option is for city council to put it out for a vote again. Use this information to educate the public and let them decide.”