City Administrator Rick Childers said last week’s meeting with a representative from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and St. Clair Regional Airport tenants completes the process requested by the Federal Aviation Administration for the city to close the facility.
The two-plus-hour meeting was put together by members of U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s staff and included Childers, Mayor Ron Blum, AOPA Vice President Bill Dunn, four St. Clair airport tenants and one staff member each representing Luetkemeyer and U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt. Airport consultant Ron Price, retained by the city, participated by cellphone.
“This meeting itself was one of the items requested by the FAA as part of our closure process,” Childers told The Missourian. “It was a very cordial meeting. It was somewhat helpful in assisting us with understanding the basis for the objections to close the airport.”
During Monday night’s St. Clair Board of Aldermen meeting, Blum agreed.
“We started out by saying our intentions were to close the airport,” the mayor told the aldermen. “As the meeting went on, I feel we presented our cases to each other and came to a better understanding.
“I stressed to Mr. Dunn that as mayor, my priority is our citizens.”
Childers said much of the meeting did not focus on specifics, but on the closing proposal and process itself. The city administrator said that one thing Dunn noted was that a large number of private airports recently have been closing for financial reasons.
“He said people are finding out they can sell the land for a great deal more than they can get by using it as an airport,” Childers said. “We told him we’re in that same situation here even though ours is a public facility.”
The city is trying to close the airport located in the Interstate 44 corridor on the north side of town to pave the way for economic development on the 80-acre site. The FAA must approve the closure since the city used federal grants, the last in 2006, for airport improvements.
City financial records show the airport annually operates in the red. Both Blum and Childers repeatedly have stated St. Clair will not put money into the facility that would deprive residents of essential services the administration needs to provide.
“Without significant revenues to meet the needs of the city, money is not available to put into the airport,” Childers said. “We reiterate that we will not sacrifice city services.”
Childers also said it was shared with the group at the meeting that if the FAA says no to closure, “we will continue to do the things we are required to do to comply with the (federal) grant assurances.”
On Monday night, Blum agreed with that statement.
None of the small handful of tenants who rent hangar space at the airport live in St. Clair. At least one of those tenants, Jim DeVries of Pacific, has accused the city of diverting funds in an effort to show the airport is losing money and that the city is “stealing money from the airport.”
DeVries was one of the tenants who attended last week’s meeting.
On the St. Clair Airport blog, which appears to be created and operated by DeVries, negative comments about the city and Blum in regards to the airport are common.
“The same old Ron Blum double talk only goes so far, and it has run out of gas,” the blog states under an Aug. 1 heading.
An Aug. 5 posting states that “the only thing the city has accomplished is to embarrass itself exponentially, with all the lies about the airport. ... At this point the city does not have an honorable way out of this. The only course left is to make it all go away, quietly and calmly, just forget about it.”
Another Aug. 5 posting states there “is overwhelming proof that the city is intentionally destroying the airport against the federal regulations.”
When Dunn met with The Missourian before the meeting with the city, he said that even though the AOPA represents what the organization believes is in the best interests of aviation, including pilots, DeVries and other tenants who use the St. Clair facility are “stretching the truth” regarding the local issue.
That was the only “on the record” comment he would make in that regard.
Dunn did say the conversation during the meeting with the city was “lively at times” with the mayor making his points regarding economic growth and job creation.
“I indicated to the mayor that if he was looking for immediate economic development and jobs, a developer could purchase the properties on the west side of Interstate 44 and construct now.”
The AOPA states it has a membership base of 400,000 pilots and aviation enthusiasts nationwide and that it provides “member services that range from representation at the federal, state and local levels to legal services, advice and other assistance.” Dunn has been vice president of the organization for 21 years, and came from Maryland to attend the meeting.
“The airport should stay open,” Dunn told The Missourian. “We’ve expressed that to the FAA. The FAA is not obligated to release the city from its obligations, and we are encouraging it not to.”
Childers confirmed Dunn’s stance stated during the meeting.
“We know his constituency is opposed to closing airports,” the city administrator said. “We respect that.
“But, the mayor pointed out that his constituency, the people he represents here, is opposed to keeping it open.”
Blum has been elected to office three times by an overwhelming margin after he ran each time on a platform to increase economic development and retail growth. Closing the airport was part of that platform.
Childers said the city remains “cautiously optimistic” about the closing of the facility.
“We believe we make a very compelling case, and we will continue to make that case to the FAA,” he said. “Our position remains the same. We continue to be willing to work with the pilots, the FAA and MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) with this.”
Report to FAA
Childers also said now that the meeting has taken place, a report will be sent to FAA officials in Washington, D.C., by the middle of August saying the FAA-required steps have been addressed by the city. The report will include the action taken and conclusions made regarding those steps.
The other FAA-directed steps given to the city were to have a third appraisal of the airport land to determine its highest and best use, provide a more complete explanation of what the net benefit to aviation will be by closing the airport, provide a history of the facility itself and noting why it has been lagging financially compared to other area airports, and show why the city has not had the financial resources to fund the airport.
The third appraisal carried a value of $520,000 and indicated the highest and best use of the land would be commercial.
“We will tell the FAA we anticipate a decision from them within 90 days of receipt,” he said of the report.
FAA in No Hurry
Dunn said the federal agency will not act that quickly.
“Our position was that any closure path would not be immediate and take many years to complete — assuming that the FAA agreed,” he said.
As far as a time line, Dunn said local officials “should not expect any quick answers.”
Dunn also told The Missourian that he stated that revenue generated from the airport cannot be used to fund exploration of its closure.
“When I advised the mayor that airport revenues could not be used for an EIS (environmental impact study), environmental remediation and demolition of existing airport infrastructure in order to provide the land to a developer, he indicated to me that the FAA had told him airport revenue could be used for those purposes,” Dunn told The Missourian. “The mayor’s point being that the city did not need any ‘bridge funding’ moving forward.
“So, let’s do some math here and assume that the FAA agrees to the closure and sale.”
Dunn then outlined the following revenue and expenses as he sees them: •Property sells for $520,000, the appraised value, income.
•Environmental impact study, $1 million estimated minimum, expense.
•Demolition of existing airport, $250,000 estimated expense.
•Repayment of current federal obligations, $751,000, likely expense according to the third airport appraisal.
•Total expenses potentially allowed from airport revenue, $2.1 million.
“So, with an income of $520,000 and an expense of over $2 million, the city will need to front nearly $1.5 million from general fund revenue,” he said, adding that an additional $150,000 will be needed to pay for Price’s consulting fee.
“With all this in mind, how will the city now fund the proposed developments at surrounding airports to create the benefit to civil aviation? There are no funds left from the sale proceeds to do so.”
Childers has said he has heard nothing from the FAA regarding an environmental impact study and that it may be possible to roll at least some of the costs into the sale of the land.