Airport Upgrade Wins Council Ok

Joint meeting results in agreement to seek engineer to draw plans for $9 million airport revamp

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Gary Spragins

The Payson Regional Airport Authority brought the ambitious, $9 million master plan to upgrade the airport in for a smooth landing before the town council Thursday.

The relationship between the town and the airport authority has in the past two years labored through thunderstorms and downdrafts. But with a thick report and architect’s plans to plaster on the wall, Gary Spragins never had to so much as hit the fasten seat belt light as he laid out the master plan for the town council in a rare joint study session with the airport authority board.

The council readily approved the board’s request to start looking for an architect and a builder to plan the five-year rollout of new hangars, a helicopter landing and maintenance pad and a new terminal with a restaurant.

Developing a detailed set of plans will likely cost about $500,000, with the Federal Aviation Administration paying almost all of the cost. Once those plans are finished, the airport can get in line for FAA and Arizona Department of Transportation funds to underwrite the cost of the improvements.

The council Wednesday approved the start of the search for an engineer, for which the FAA would hopefully pay.

“We’re really excited about this plan,” said Spragins. “In a down economy, if we can get something happening — it helps.”

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans made veiled reference to past disputes between the council and the airport authority on contract terms, FAA inspections and other issues.

“I know we’ve worked through a lot of contentious issues in the past year,” said Evans.

“We’ve cleaned up a lot. We’re ready to move into the next phase,” said Spragins.

Councilor Michael Hughes, who has been the council link with the airport authority in recent months, supported the ambitious plan to make it possible for the airport to handle bigger, faster planes and jets, while developing a cluster of airport-related businesses nearby. The current plan envisions a public-private partnership between the airport authority and private developers to build the facilities, on land leased from the airport.

Hughes cited as precedent for thinking big the bold plan to turn the town’s waste treatment system into a chain of lakes in a huge public park. “We pulled off Green Valley Park when we didn’t know what we couldn’t do. We need to explore this in the same way.”

A 2002 ADOT study put the overall economic impact of the airport at $20.4 million. That included 62 jobs with a direct payroll of $2.3 million and sales of more than $5 million. Spending by pilots and passengers generated an additional 68 jobs and $3.3 million. The analysts included a multiplier effect of those jobs and spending, which brought the total impact impact to $20 million.

The master plan would likely boost that impact substantially, especially if the airport authority succeeds in luring airport-related businesses to the improved facility. Such businesses might include companies that paint airplanes or outfit them with various high-tech instruments.

Currently, about 100 private planes are based at the airport, which has a total of some 40,000 takeoffs and landings annually, according to the master plan report. By 2028, the plan projects 140 planes based at the airport and 66,000 takeoffs and landings.

Payson still actually owns the airport, although it contracts with the Airport Authority to run it. The town saved about $100,000 by turning operations over to the airport authority, which is essentially made up of private plane owners. However, the town remains legally responsible for the airport and management of the federal grants that have paid for most of the facilities.

As a result, the airport authority needed the town council’s approval to move forward on the master plan — starting with putting out “request for qualifications” — to line up an engineering firm to draw up plans and manage the eventual construction process.

Both sides pronounced themselves delighted with a new spirit of cooperation.

“A little different from a year ago,” quipped airport authority board member Nancy Ward, as the council concluded the meeting and went up to the front of the room to examine the 10-foot-long diagrams of the planned runway improvements.

“The difference between a Fourth of July fireworks show and some sparklers,” replied Mayor Evans.

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