Prepare for turbulence

The fate of Steamboat Springs' airport heats up

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— As city staff steps up its efforts to turn the airport into an efficient money-making enterprise, local opposition has stepped up, too.

At an airport saddled with the debt from its virtually unused terminal and not likely to get commercial service anytime soon, concerns about land-use decisions and safety have increased. Now, the city is asking for help from the Federal Aviation Administration to determine if the airport is complying with all federal regulations and is trying to decide how serious it is about keeping the airport open for the next few years and, indeed, the next few decades.

The City Council on Tuesday will vote on a hangar ground lease at the airport that could lock the city into a 40-year agreement with a private hangar developer.

"It will be a pivotal moment for the future of the airport," Airport Manager Matt Grow said.

The council gave the idea of building hangars tacit approval in December but has been cautious lately in signing a contract that could expose the city to litigation or financial losses if the airport closed.

Dunn Properties out of Denver wants to build 11 hangars on 30 city-owned acres at the airport. Dunn would own the hangars and would take the financial risk in constructing them. The company would then sell them to private owners, who would take on the lease with the city.

Dunn Properties has been attempting to place hangars just northeast of the terminal since it responded to a city request for proposals in January 2001.

Airport Manager Matt Grow has proposed the hangar development as a remedy to two problems at the airport.

First, the airport is attempting to pull itself out of the red and become economically self-sufficient. The airport is currently subsidized by the city to the tune of more than $100,000 per year in operations.

Grow estimates that new hangars would bring in at least

$60,000 from ground lease

payments and fuel sales from the city-owned fixed base operator fuel center once planes begin to inhabit the hangars. That estimate is based on the assumption that the airplanes that would park in the hangars would be new to the facility and therefore new fuel buyers. If they are current planes that already buy fuel and would not bring in new fuel revenues, the city may make more in the vicinity of $50,000 per year, Grow said.

If Dunn continues with phase two of the project, city numbers show the hangars could bring in $100,000 per year.

In addition, the airport is low on hangar space. The city has a waiting list 45 names long for spots in a hangar. Many operators who use their planes as often as every other day have to park them outside where they can become covered in ice or snow, Grow said.

Hangar hang-ups

But the benefits of installing new hangars have been questioned.

Bill Martin, a former City Council president who raised concerns about the desirability of expanding the airport a few months ago, is back in the fray. He says decisions about the airport are really land use decisions about city property. The 320 acres at Bob Adams Field that the city owns outright or owns easements on should be used for the benefit of the most people possible, Martin contends.

Right now, about 1 percent of the residents of the city get to use the airport, Martin said. The average person on the street is paying for a resource that he or she will probably never be able to use, he said.

"If it was just up to me, I'd have to seriously question why we still have this airport," Martin said. "To me, there's a blatant redundancy (because of Yampa Valley Regional Airport)."

Martin said he thinks the airport terminal could be used as an event center for the chamber of commerce or for a number of other purposes. He thinks the city also needs to look at ideas such as creating affordable housing or a performing arts center at the airport.

Others, such as former Councilman Jim Engelken, have urged the city to stop building at the airport, noting that the last big construction project the city undertook landed it in debt for more than a decade.

The city agreed to build a terminal to hold commercial operators for $2.8 million in 1992 and subsequently all commercial providers stopped service out of Steamboat in 1995.

"I suggest to you there is writing on the wall," Engelken said at a public hearing. "Here we are again looking at a long-term commitment."

Sense and cents

But Bob Maddox, owner of a charter and air ambulance service at the airport, thinks the terminal issue has been hung over the city's head for a decade and is getting a little old. It is used to pummel policy makers who want to make the airport a more successful enterprise. If the council continues to shy away from any commitment, it will only hurt the city, he said.

Maddox said the airport does much more than simply satisfy the needs of plane owners who want to be able to take off on a whim. His business alone spends $350,000 on salaries and others also employ local people.

"It's an economic workhorse," Maddox said. "There needs to be some awareness of what's happening here."

In addition, the air ambulance has shuttled people to Denver and other hospitals who could have been in much worse condition had they needed to be transported first to the airport at Hayden, Maddox said.

He said he would be willing to expand his business and potentially employ more locals if the city could get more hangars built.

Grow agrees.

He said he thinks the city needs to stop stalling if it wants to make the airport financially successful.

"When there's talk about closing the airport, it scares away potential businesses," Grow said.

He said he is worried the airport could close, though he has noted that the move might not be a fiscally sound for the city.

A letter from the Federal Aviation Administration in Denver indicates that if the city sold or changed the airport it would have to pay a portion of the proceeds to the FAA, including 90 percent of money secured from the federal government through grants to the airport.

In addition, the city is also making sure the airport is safe for the pilots and their passengers who use the facility.

Warren Harner, an American Airlines pilot who has a home in Steamboat, has raised some concerns in the past few months regarding the length of the runway as it relates to the size of the planes flying into Steamboat Springs Airport.

Harner has done extensive research about plane size and runway length, noting that the Steamboat airport is at high elevation and the air is less dense, making it more difficult to take off.

Harner presented the council with more than 50 pages of data and conclusions. The city sent a request to the FAA to examine the data and get back to the city.

The runway at Steamboat Springs Airport is 4,452 feet long, shorter than what the manuals for some planes that fly into the airport say is needed at this altitude, Harner said.

In addition, there are skid marks at the end of the runway, evidence that planes have attempted to stop and abort a takeoff but have been unable to do so without skidding off the runway, Harner said.

Other pilots see Harner's "information" as a veiled attempt to try to alarm people or shut down the airport.

Grow said the skid marks are common in many airports and that the airport is designed to accommodate a plane when it needs to abort takeoff. He said the responsibility of where and when to take off lies with the pilot, not the airport.

Maddox compares Harner's contention that if the airport runway is too short for certain operators, it is the city's responsibility to police it, to the idea that if people choose to drive over Rabbit Ears Pass in a car with bald tires, the city should close down Rabbit Ears Pass.

Maddox added that the FAA regulates plane operations and would not let "unsafe" behavior continue if it truly was a problem.

"We've been doing this for nine years with the feds looking over our shoulders every step of the way," he said of his business.

Harner said the analogy with driving is off base.

He said he does not want to tell the policymakers what to do and claims he has never said the Steamboat airport is unsafe.

He simply wants to give the City Council information that may help it in its decision-making process, Harner said.

Harner said he is pleased the city has forwarded his concerns to the FAA and hopes the organization can make the final decision.

FAA specialists dealing with the case in Denver would not comment but a spokesman for the FAA said the issue would be dealt with within 30 days. FAA spokesman Alan Kenitzer said the safe operation of an aircraft is ultimately the pilot's responsibility, though airports should notify the FAA if there is a safety problem. He said he had not read Harner's letter.

Decisions, decisions

City Councilman Steve Ivancie met with Harner and said he is counting on the FAA to make the final decision on the safety issue.

Ivancie has urged caution on the hangar issue and all issues regarding the airport. He said he is willing to help make the airport successful as a general aviation facility but does not want to dig the city a hole it cannot get out of by signing a binding contract.

Councilman Loui Antonucci, who voted for the terminal in 1992, said he does not feel the hangar issue is the same as the terminal issue. However, said he thinks the public wants the airport to be a successful general aviation facility. Antonucci indicated at the last council meeting that he will likely vote for the hangar lease.

"I think the community has spoken," he said. "I think the community has said we want this."

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