Bill Dunn, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the organization he represents serves as a gatekeeper to general aviation as well as to the pilots who use the national aviation system.
He also wants to make sure the AOPA’s stance is clear in regards to St. Clair’s attempt to close its regional airport.
Dunn, 62, who has been in his position with the AOPA for 21 years, told The Missourian during an interview on Monday that the AOPA “represents the general aviation industry at all levels.
“The aviation infrastructure is important to us and to our members,” he said. “As far as the bigger picture, we firmly believe that a mile of road takes you one mile, but a mile of runway takes you anywhere in the world.”
At least in part because of that belief, Dunn said the AOPA wants the St. Clair Regional Airport to stay open.
“That’s our opinion,” he said. “The airport should stay open. We’ve expressed that to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). The FAA is not obligated to release the city from its obligations, and we are encouraging it not to.”
Information about AOPA states that it has a membership base of more than 400,000 pilots and aviation enthusiasts nationwide, that it is the “largest, most influential aviation association in the world” and that it provides “member services that range from representation at the federal, state and local levels to legal services, advice and other assistance.”
City officials have said for more than five years that they want to close the facility on the north side of town between Interstate 44 and Highway 47 to pave the way for retail development on the 80-acre site. Closure approval has to be granted by the FAA because the city has used federal grants, the latest in 2006, to fund improvements at the facility.
“The local government accepted federal money for this airport,” Dunn said. “They made promises. They need to keep those promises.”
One of those promises, Dunn said, is that the city is obligated to operate the airport “in perpetuity” because it accepted the FAA grant funds.
Dunn traveled from Maryland to St. Clair this week to look at the local airport as well as to meet with Mayor Ron Blum, City Administrator Rick Childers, pilots who rent hangar space at the facility and representatives of U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s office to talk about the facility and its future.
“Part of this is that in many towns, people elected to office don’t understand aviation and what it can bring to a community if it is supported,” Dunn said. “This used to be a vibrant airport. I think there is a basic lack of understanding about what the airport could be and should be as part of the aviation infrastructure.
“I think it’s important for people here to understand that this airport could be a tremendous asset to the community, and if it is supported it could draw business, tourism and revenue with the support of this administration.
“In our opinion, if the city would focus on developing the airport, it could thrive.”
City budget figures have shown that the airport has operated in the red in recent years. Dunn said he questions that, saying he thinks the city’s accounting system “leaves something to be desired.”
Local airport tenant Jim DeVries of Pacific has accused the city of diverting funds and “stealing money from the airport.” Dunn said DeVries and other local tenants are in regular contact with him about the local airport situation.
The AOPA vice president said he does not have enough information to make a specific statement on those accusations, but added that “there are some questions on the use of airport revenue.”
He said he specifically is referring to the amount of money the city charges to its airport budget line item for insurance. The city uses the Missouri Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, or MIRMA. MIRMA is a self-insurance pool, created and owned entirely by participating municipalities, including St. Clair, and functions solely for their benefit.
“We have questions about the allocation of certain insurance expenses against the airport,” Dunn said. “There is a huge percentage of that allocated against the airport.”
The city charges 5 percent of its overall annual MIRMA insurance bill to the airport, and that is one of the expenses the airport incurs over the course of a year. For Fiscal Year 2013, the amount charged to the airport line item in the city’s budget was $7,904.15.
Airport revenue comes from hangar rental.
Dunn also said he wants to know if the city has considered other properties for retail growth, if potential buyers have come forward to purchase the land and if the city has deep enough pockets to finance the closure process.
According to FAA rules and regulations, all revenue generated from an airport must be spent on an airport. That means that if the city is allowed to close the facility, money from the sale of the land must be kept in aviation and not for the city’s general use.
“The city can’t use a penny of that money as funding to close the airport,” Dunn said. “It will be an expensive process that the taxpayers will pay for.”
Dunn estimated the city will accumulate costs of well over $1 million if it was to close the airport. He said those costs could include an environmental study, paying consultants, paying back the unamortized value of the federal grants and the demolition of the airport itself.
As part of the FAA’s closure process, the city recently had to have a third appraisal done on the airport property. The appraisal was the first of four steps the federal agency required St. Clair officials to do before closure could be granted.
The appraisal came back with a $520,000 price tag and stated the “highest and best use” of the land would be commercial. The third appraisal amount was between the other two figures provided by initial appraisals the city had conducted on the property last year.
Dunn believes the value is much too low.
“In reviewing the document, I don’t believe the city has provided the FAA with everything it needs,” he said, adding that the runway alone is worth more than the appraisal amount.
“In our opinion, we think the city is trying to circumvent the system instead of going through the system with the FAA.
“The FAA does have a (closure) process and it is obligated to listen,” he said. “But, it doesn’t have an obligation to grant it (closure). The FAA works under federal law. That law needs to be followed by all parties.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we disagree with the direction the city is going,” Dunn said. “We’ll be watching like a hawk.”