Pilots Against Turning Airport Back To Town

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Turning the airport back over to the town is not going to happen this year and the airport board wants a committee to determine what options are available to operate and improve the airport in the future.

Faced with overwhelming opposition from pilots, the airport will not go back to the town now and will appoint a committee to develop ideas on a plan to develop the airport. The Payson Regional Airport Authority (PRAA) voted to pay for an audit and appointed a citizen committee to explore the future of the airport at a July 11 meeting at the Crosswinds Restaurant.

“Paying for an audit buys time. How much is that worth: $5,000? $10,000?” asked Jim Hunt, a director on the PRAA board.

Pilot Ralph Larken agreed. “Let’s pay for the audit to buy us one more year. I like this airport, I don’t want to have to drive to Falconcraft to fly my plane.”

For two hours, 30 pilots and citizens tossed about questions, opinions and concerns about the future of the airport. Everyone seemed to agree: Don’t return the airport back to the

town if the board can find any other alternative.

“If we turn (the airport) back over to the town of Payson, they will run up the bills and find the land is more valuable for houses,” said one pilot.

“We need airport people running the airport. We must develop trust between the two entities because neither us nor the town can develop this airport,” said another.

The Catch 22 for the airport board comes from the terms of the lease with the town.

Payson owns the land and remains responsible for the federal grants that have built most of the facilities. The user-run airport authority could have trouble borrowing the money needed to develop the airport to generate enough revenue to pay the operating costs in the long run.

“We can’t borrow money per the terms of the lease. The FAA (Federal Airport Administration) is not going to do the infrastructure work, their focus is to get the taxiway moved — and the town is broke. Who will pay for the infrastructure work?” asked PRAA board president Jon Barber.

The airport board has already worked out the broad terms of a deal with the town to take back the airport. The town of Payson turned over the airport to users four years ago. Under the preliminary terms of the new deal, the council would make the current airport manager a town employee and set up the existing airport board as a town commission.

The room full of pilots steadfastly refused to believe that other options to operate and improve the airport did not exist, even after board members reported that they had pored over the books and examined possibilities since January.

The board’s biggest concern lies in the upcoming end to a $70,000 annual Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) grant to Payson to support the airport. The town uses this to pay the rent on a town maintenance yard, said Barber. That payment accounts for more than one-third of the airport’s revenue.

Several pilots wondered whether the airport authority can develop other ways to make money.

“What about industry interest?” asked Marie Fasano.

“Periodically, there’s been some interest. We’ve worked with (Payson Economic Development director) Mike Vogel to promote the airport. But the potential cash flow for the airport is limited because PRAA would only make money on the land rental,” said Barber.

Frustrated with the discussion whirling around in an eddy of air, the board turned to the audience for answers.

“We’d like to hear what you have to say. I’d like to ask for a ‘Friends of the Airport’ committee to come back in three months to present a plan with objectives on their progress and prospective,” said Hunt.

Former PRAA board member Jim Garner agreed to head up a six-member committee to determine whether the airport could not only sustain itself, but also expand.

The airport currently has a $10 million master plan to add a terminal, restaurant, hangars and other facilities to accommodate a projected doubling in the 40,000 takeoffs and landings the airport now handles.

“It’s going to take money to keep this airport nice for you to be happy using it and for people to want to come here,” said Hunt.

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