Mayor Ron Blum said he remains optimistic about the possibility of closing the St. Clair Regional Airport after he personally met with Federal Aviation Administration officials earlier this week in Washington, D.C.
Blum discussed the local facility with members of the federal agency, including Catherine Lang, the FAA’s deputy associate administrator for airports, during the 1-hour, 45-minute meeting on Wednesday.
“We now have a path for closure,” Blum told The Missourian on Thursday morning after he had returned to St. Clair from the nation’s capital. “The meeting went in the direction of progress. It’s just going to take filling in some blanks.”
Those blanks, he said, are four points FAA officials specifically addressed concerning the airport and the city’s quest to close it.
“The FAA gave us four action items to bring us down the path of closure,” Blum said. “We had a very good discussion on both sides. It won’t be easy, but I was very encouraged with how the meeting went.”
Several other individuals were involved in the meeting, including state Rep. Dave Hinson of St. Clair, who made the trip to the nation’s capital to help the city with its quest.
“He was very helpful,” Blum said of Hinson. “I was thrilled he was there for us.”
Also present were staff members for U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt as well as U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.
In a nutshell, the four points the city needs to work on next are:
•Getting a third appraisal done on the 80-acre airport property. This appraisal must be filed on proper FAA forms and follow FAA guidelines.
•Providing a more complete explanation of what the net benefit to aviation will be by closing the local airport.
•Providing a history of the facility itself and noting why it has been lagging financially compared to other area airports.
•Why the city has not had the financial resources to fund the airport.
“Basically, the FAA said they want to be helpful to our cause, but they want us to give them something they can defend (the closure) with,” Blum said.
Ron Price of QED Airport Aviation & Consultants, whom the city has retained to help with the closure process, also was present in Washington, D.C., for the meeting. He had a similar summary of Wednesday’s meeting as the mayor did.
“The FAA said it wants to help us, but we have to help them first,” Price said during a Thursday telephone call. “They said that they see our point of view. However, we need to address these issues (the four points) so we can say it makes sense.
“They (FAA) want to make sure everything is on firm footing.”
Blum and Price traveled to Washington, D.C., as the next step in the city’s five-year attempt to close the airport located on the north side of the city between Interstate 44 and Highway 47. The St. Clair Administration and Board of Aldermen want to shut down the facility to make room for proposed retail development on the site.
The city needs FAA approval to close the airport because it has used federal grants in the past — the latest being 2006 — to make improvements to the facility.
The city’s books show the airport has been losing money at least as long as Blum has been in office. During the mayor’s first term, which started in 2007, his administration established a separate budget line item for the airport, and expenses have outpaced income every year at least that far back.
“The meeting provided us more definition of what the FAA is asking for,” Blum said. “We now have a better definition of what it wants.
“But I told them about our community and the airport, our needs and what we are looking for,” the mayor said. “When I was finished, Catherine Lang said it helped and will make a difference in how the FAA will look at this request.”
Both Blum and City Administrator Rick Childers told The Missourian on Thursday that they believed much of the information the FAA now is requesting already has been sent to the agency through the 200-page airport closure document compiled and mailed to dozens of officials and representatives last year.
The extensive document included an executive summary, airport obligations, the first two land appraisals, the existing airport layout plan, the airport assessment plan prepared by QED that supports the closure, an abridged copy of the city’s comprehensive plan, newspaper articles regarding the issue, letters of support and correspondence.
“We’re just going to have to get more detailed information together,” Blum said. “The next step is to digest exactly what the FAA is telling us so we can put more information together and move it forward.”
Blum said he is confident the St. Clair Regional Airport now is on the FAA’s radar and that the facility successfully can be closed if proper steps continue to be followed.
“Everything we’ve done so far we’ve been able to document,” the mayor said about the closure process. “We’ve tracked everything from our standpoint.”
A small handful of pilots who also are airport tenants are opposed to the city closing the facility. At least one of those tenants, Jim DeVries, has filed formal complaints against the city relating to the airport.
“Everything said by the complainants is just hearsay,” Blum said. “They haven’t produced any actual documentation.”
Blum said the latest complaint, which accuses the city of “stealing money from the airport,” was discussed during Wednesday’s meeting.
“There was some conversation about the complaint,” Blum said. “I told the FAA people that a lot of it (complaint) is undocumented and that I believe it to be true propaganda and that it should be investigated. The FAA said it is being investigated, and I told them in my response that that’s good.
“We’ve tried to do this the right way,” the mayor said. “We will continue to do so.”
Blum said on Thursday that there is no new time line as to when the next steps will be taken, but added they will be done as soon as possible. He said FAA officials will be sending the city some information it can use to move forward.
Besides Blum, Price, Lang and Hinson, other meeting participants were Scott Gore, an FAA congressional liaison; Randall Fiertz, the FAA’s director of airport compliance; Kevin Willis, manager of the FAA compliance division; two FAA attorneys; another government compliance official; Clark Porter of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s staff; Peter Henry of U.S. Roy Blunt’s staff; and Chris Brown of U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s staff.
Participating in the meeting via telephone conference call were Childers, Jim Johnson of the FAA’s regional office in Kansas City and Jo Middleton of McCaskill’s staff.
Blum said he and Price met with the congressional delegation before the FAA meeting to make sure everyone was on the same page.