Whether to close the St. Clair Regional Airport and use the land for retail development remains a divisive issue.
On Thursday, the Franklin County Transportation Committee heard from two individuals who have differing opinions on the issue. The presentations about the airport issue were for informational purposes.
The airport does not provide enough benefit to the city to justify keeping it open, St. Clair City Administrator Rick Childers told the committee.
But airport tenant Jim DeVries, of Pacific, said the airport serves a purpose and could be improved with management changes.
Childers said the final decision of whether to close the airport rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. He said he does not know when a decision may come. The city needs FAA permission because it obtained federal grants, as recent as 2006, to make improvements at the facility.
Closure is needed to open about 80 acres of real estate north of the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 47 for retail development, Childers said. That location is the best spot St. Clair has for development, he said.
Business growth at the intersection significantly could strengthen St. Clair’s tax base to pay for vital services such as police and roads, Childers added.
“It’s about the money,” Childers said.
If the community wants to keep up with its existing infrastructure and grow in the future, then more money is needed, he said. The most reasonable way to get that money is from increased sales taxes, Childers said.
Some airports can generate community growth, but St. Clair’s airport does not, Childers said. The St. Clair airport is not a worthy competitor to the airports in Washington and Sullivan, he said.
“Fifty years ago, we hoped the airport would develop into a powerhouse that would bring in all kinds of business opportunities to the city,” Childers said.
Committee member Jay Schultehenrich questioned what would happen to AirEvac, a helicopter ambulance service stationed at the facility.
Childers said the city has assured AirEvac personnel that if the airport land is sold, an alternate location for the company will be arranged. AirEvac currently is in the middle of a five-year lease to rent space at the facility.
Committee member Leroy Strubberg suggested that the airport could help draw future business to the community.
“Some industries look at rail, the highways and also airports,” Strubberg said.
In that part of the county, it seems as if an airport would be an asset for attracting industry, Strubberg said. He noted that Union has an industrial park located a few miles north of the airport.
DeVries said one pilot uses an airplane to entertain clients, and he made reference to how the facility at one time was useful.
“At one time there were 20 businesses operating out of the St. Clair Airport,” DeVries said.
If the airport land was sold, Childers said the city would pay back more than $300,000 of federal grants it obtained.
He added that the proceeds from selling the airport land would go back to the FAA, and said he would like to see the money put into the Washington and Sullivan airports. A proposed plan doing that has been sent to the FAA.
The appraised value of the land is about $500,000, he said. Three appraisals have been done on the property.
DeVries said the airport has gone through some tough times and that it has lacked consistent management to succeed.
Airport management requires expertise, he said.
“I feel that is the one contributing factor that has led to (the airport) being in the shape that it is today,” DeVries said.
“The right person running this airport can make it go. We’ve got people who want to move here with the right facilities and the right maintenance.”
Someone who focused on the needs of the pilots could make the airport work well, DeVries said, adding that only six pilots use the airport now.
“We’ve got about 10 people who would like to move back,” he said.
But DeVries said that is being held up by the uncertainty of the airport’s future and the cost of hangar rentals.
User fees from hangars and fuel sales help keep airports running, he said.
In St. Clair, income is generated from hangar rental, which was raised from $175 per month in 2012 to $300 this year, then rolled back to the $175 per month fee after tenants complained.
A St. Louis University instructor of airport management has offered to start an intern program using students to manage the St. Clair Airport on a continuing basis, DeVries said.
DeVries also suggested helping the airport by moving it into a more modern facility and extending the runway, which is currently 3,198 feet. But Schultehenrich questioned where the money would come from to make airport improvements.
None of the pilots who use the airport live in St. Clair, DeVries said. It is a regional airport, he said, adding it provides safety for pilots who may need to make emergency landings.