Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pilots Talk to FAA Officials ... Give Their Side of Airport Story. St Clair Regional (K39), Missouri.

Longtime pilot and area resident Gilbert Hoffman said he is in no way against retail expansion in St. Clair. However, he is against that expansion taking place where the St. Clair Regional Airport currently sits.

Hoffman, who said he has had a pilot's license for about 50 years and has been a regular user of the local facility since it opened in the 1960s, participated in a conference call meeting earlier this month with Federal Aviation Administration officials who have been courted by the St. Clair city administration about closing the airport. The city wants to use the land for proposed retail development.

Hoffman said he and three other pilots who use the St. Clair airport participated in the hour-long meeting as well as a handful of FAA officials, including Joe Miniace, the FAA's Central Region administrator in Kansas City.

Joe Pestka, the Missouri Department of Transportation's Aviation Administration director, also took part.

"We tried to get the message to them as far as the value of the airport," Hoffman told The Missourian during an interview last week. "We talked about the do's and don't's, the ups and downs and why we thought the airport should stay open in St. Clair.

"It was a good meeting."

Currently, about 10 pilots rent hangar space at the local facility, but none of them live within the St. Clair city limits. Some of them publicly have claimed the city is not operating and maintaining the airport properly, is misusing funds and is running the facility into the ground.

"We told them how the city is not taking care of the airport," Hoffman said of the meeting. "We argued that the airport could be a valuable asset and talked to them about normal things as far as the facility."

Hoffman did not provide any more detail about the meeting, but said, "I felt they listened closely to us.

"I felt like we presented points to them that they needed to know," he said. "They said they were glad they got information from both sides and said they would consider both sides. They said they will discuss it and get back to us."

City Meeting

In August, St. Clair Mayor Ron Blum and City Administrator Rick Childers met with FAA officials in Kansas City to state their case about closing the regional airport, saying that doing so would benefit both the city and general aviation.

During that two-hour meeting, those FAA officials outlined their position and intent, with Blum and Childers saying that the federal officials said the FAA is not in the business of closing airports but that there is a specific process to follow when requesting to do so.

At the end of the day, however, the St. Clair duo said they were optimistic that process can be followed and closure could take place.

The meeting at the FAA Regional Office in Kansas City was the latest step in the city's quest to close the facility located on the north side of town along the Interstate 44 corridor off of Highway 47 to make way for the proposed retail development. The process, which has lasted more than three years, has included meetings with local pilots and the public, formulating a plan and putting together a 200-page document that outlines the city's viewpoint in stating its case.

The closure document states that the city "is uncontested" to its obligation about a requirement to pay back more than $750,000 in funds obtained through federal grants as part of the closure process. The money to pay back those grants would come from the sale of the land for the proposed retail development on the site.

The document was sent to several FAA and other officials a couple of months ago.

St. Clair's administration has contested that closing the facility would be a plus for aviation in part because any federal funds potentially available locally could be used elsewhere for airport improvements. City officials also have said there are enough adequate airports in the vicinity, including Washington, Sullivan, Cuba and Washington County.

Closing the St. Clair airport makes sense for the city and its residents, Blum said, in part because of the economy and what retail development could bring to the area.

Childers said the FAA officials charged the city with coming up with "a next step of the plan," which includes assistance in relocating the 10 or so pilots who still house planes in St. Clair to other airports and determining how funds from the sale of the local airport land will be used to help neighboring airports such as Sullivan or Washington.

Hoffman's Stance

Hoffman, 79, who also is a member of the St. Clair R-XIII Board of Education, said he believes the city is lagging in its obligations as far as maintaining the airport.

"The airport could be a valuable asset to the city," he said, "but the city has discouraged it the last few years.

"It's run down, and the city has let it run down."

Hoffman also said he feels there is other land that could be used for the proposed retail development.

"I think the city owns land near the scale house (eastbound I-44 weigh station)," he said. "And, there's other ground at (I-44) exits 242, 240 and 239 that could be purchased for less money than it would cost to close the airport.

"I just think there are other areas more suitable."

Hoffman said he believes the land the airport sits on would not be cost-effective by the time a service road would be built to connect the outer roads off of I-44 exits 240 and 242 tacked on to the price tag the city would have to pay the FAA for the closure.

"I think it will take bundles and bundles of money," he said. "I just think there should be a way to get the retail development we need without having to close the airport."

He suggested making the two one project.

"There's a lot of ground around that airport that could be used for business," Hoffman said. "Let's build around the airport and not close it.

"Why don't we take that approach? I don't understand it. The airport used to be used by a lot of people. It can be again.

"As far as I'm concerned, the airport is the biggest asset the city has. It would be an even bigger asset if it were used right."

Hoffman said he was part of a group that bought original shares with Meramec Association Limited in 1963 that got the airport started. He said he purchased five shares at $500 each.

He produced a list of 28 names who were active at the start of that process.

"All of these people were involved," he said. "Most of them were shareholders.

"There were a lot of people who were very, very active in getting that airport going," he said. "It's been used by a lot of people. If we lose it, we'll never get it back."

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