City officials continue to defend their position to naysayers that closing the St. Clair Regional Airport is what they believe is best for the local community.
During the most recent aldermen meeting, longtime St. Clair area resident Gilbert Hoffman, who used to rent hangar space at the facility, addressed Mayor Ron Blum and the board members.
“You would be surprised how many people I talk to don’t understand why we’re closing the airport,” Hoffman said during the public comment period at the end of the April 2 meeting. “I think by closing the airport, you’re closing the chance for St. Clair to develop.”
The city has had plans for about five years to close the facility located between Interstate 44 and Highway 47 on the north side of St. Clair to make room for proposed retail development. Blum has made shutting down the airport a priority and ran on that platform each of the three times he has earned election to the city’s top position.
“Don’t stand there and tell me (closing the airport) is not what the people want,” Blum said back to Hoffman.
In each mayoral election — 2007, 2009 and 2011 — Blum was elected by an overwhelming majority with closing the airport at the top of his wish list.
Since his re-election last year, the effort to close the facility has picked up momentum, including a trip to Washington, D.C., late last month to discuss the issue with Federal Aviation Administration officials. Blum and the FAA discussed a four-point plan that would help the city down its closure path.
The first point of that plan is for the city to provide a third appraisal on the 80-acre property. Local officials currently are working with the FAA to make sure everyone involved is on the same page regarding that appraisal, which needs to follow the federal agency’s specifications.
The FAA’s other three points from the March 28 meeting were the city providing a more complete explanation of what the net benefit to aviation will be by closing the airport, providing a history of the facility itself and noting why it has been lagging financially compared to other area airports, and showing why the city has not had the financial resources to fund the airport.
The city needs FAA approval to close the airport because it used federal grants, the last in 2006, to make improvements.
“Several people have tried to make the airport work,” Blum told Hoffman during the recent board meeting. “There have been five FBOs (fixed base operators) who have tried to make it work. Yet for some reason, no one has been able to make it work.”
The city has lost money every year since at least 2007 on the airport, records show. A current airport tenant has filed a formal complaint with the FAA accusing the city of “stealing money from the airport.”
As part of St. Clair’s process to close the facility, a plan has been submitted to the FAA outlining how money received from the sale of the airport land would go to help fund improvement projects — including increased hangar space — at the nearby Washington and Sullivan airports. The estimated value of that sale is $2.5 million.
“If you give away the airport, you’ll never get it back,” said Hoffman, who was one of the original members of a group that helped start the facility in the 1960s. “Why can’t the money that’s been spent trying to close it be spent on improving it?”
Three of the city’s four aldermen defended Blum while Hoffman addressed him and the board.
“We’re trying to close the airport to benefit St. Clair,” Ward 1 Alderman Nathan Tate said. “The mayor never has made it a secret that that was his platform. ...
“I go out into the community and a talk to people around town. No one, not one single person, has told me they want to keep the airport. One person has said they don’t care either way. We do talk to people, and the people tell us they want it to close.”
Fellow Ward 1 Alderman Zach Fuchs agreed.
“No one has ever been able to say the St. Clair airport has ever done ‘X’ to benefit St. Clair,” he said. “Show me a way the airport benefits our general population. Show me as a whole how it benefits St. Clair.
“How is the money that the airport is either consuming or generating benefiting the city as a whole? There is no positive side to that.
“While it’s an amazing thing to have, there’s no benefit to it.”
Hoffman said both Washington and Sullivan are expanding and both cities have a thriving airport.
“If the board here would look around, Washington is expanding. Sullivan is expanding,” he said. “They have airports.”
Ward 2 Alderman Travis Dierker then chimed in.
“Union is expanding more than Washington or Sullivan and they don’t have an airport,” he said.
Blum reminded Hoffman that even if the airport had a positive cash flow, none of the money from it could be used to assist the city. FAA policies dictate that any money generated from the airport must benefit only the airport.