Monday, March 24, 2014

Valley Aero Club wants to breathe new life into James Clements Municipal Airport (3CM), Bay City, Michigan

BAY CITY, MI — George LaPorte wants to see Bay City's James Clements Airport return to its glory days, but he has his work cut out for him.

Dealing with a steady drop in overall usage and a lack of aviation interest from a younger generation, James Clements Airport isn't what it used to be, he says.

"There once was a flying school here, many flying clubs, a number of aircrafts stored in the main hangar ... we want to see it return to usefulness," said LaPorte, president of the Valley Aero Club, a group of aviation enthusiasts that has had a presence at the airport, 614 River Road, for the past 60 years.

In order for that happen, LaPorte and the Valley Aero Club are leaning on the city-owned Henry Dora Memorial Hangar to serve as a nucleus for revitalization.

The club has drafted an agreement that would have the city lease the historic hangar to the club. Under that agreement, the club would pay for all utilities and day-to-day upkeep of the hangar, and in return, would be able to profit off subleasing hangar space and events held at the hangar. That money, under the pending agreement, would help the club pay for maintenance and marketing of the hangar and help decrease the city's airport subsidy.

The idea is that the city doesn't have enough money or resources to improve the hangar and use it to generate income.

"We would like to clean up the hangar and prevent it from deteriorating worse than it already is, and then get more people using it," said LaPorte. "But in order to do that, we need some kind of autonomy. Without that, it's pointless to get involved."

The 10,000-square-foot, faded blue Dora hangar has seen better days. Birds have crashed through windows, the sliding door on the north end of the building doesn't open all the way and the last paint job happened too long ago for most to remember when.

"It's a money pit," said Charles Binder, a principle of the Valley Aero Club. "We've been trying for years to bring that hangar back to its fullest, but it will require maintenance that's beyond the reach of the average municipality."

The city's subsidy

Today, about $50,000 in city tax dollars subsidizes airport operations each year, with $29,000 of that paying the salary of Doug Dodge, the airport manager. The city also leans on fuel sales at the airport, hangar and land leases and an AT&T cell tower lease at the site to make money.

For this fiscal year, the city anticipates to make $19,998 in land leases of 40 private hangars, $1,200 for storing three aircrafts, $16,127 from a land lease with AT&T, $5,760 in city-owned T-hangar rentals (at full occupancy, revenue could be $19,200), $6,250 in aviation fuel and $2,400 in leasing 30 acres for agricultural use, for a total of nearly $52,000.

Last year, pilots pumped about 30,000 gallons of fuel at the airport, said Darwin Baranski, the city's parks director. That department also looks over the operations of the airport.

The city is an independent fuel provider, meaning it purchases fuel on the open market through a competitive bid process. It then raises the price of fuel by 50-cents per gallon at a minimum for pilots. Fuel at the airport today costs $5.60 per gallon.

In the 1990s, it wasn't uncommon to have as many as 55,000 gallons of fuel pumped, said Baranski. At that time, he said, there was a small flight school and pilots who would rent out their aircrafts.

If more aviation enthusiasts start spending more time and dollars to fly at the airport, the city would be able to make more money off things like fuel and rental space, said Baranski.

The state hasn't taken a census of operations from the airport since 2003, when there were about 21,000 takeoffs. Today, airport officials estimate somewhere between 8,500 and 10,500 takeoffs annually.

"Until general aviation starts coming back — and we don't know if it ever will because of the expense — it's going to be tough to make more money," said Baranski.

That's what the Valley Aero Club is hoping to change.

Airport history

In 1912, Lionel DeRemer, Henry Dora and Clarence Colley built and flew a Wright Flyer No. 15 on a field at the southern edge of Bay City, which ultimately became the site of James Clements Airport. About 16 years later, James Clements Airport was established. In August of 1928, the first U.S. airmail arrived at the airport.

James Clements was the son of William Clements, a wealthy industrialist in Bay City in the early 1900s. William Clements was a member of the local chamber of commerce at the time that was looking into how to finance an airport.

James Clements died of influenza in France while fighting in World War I. Heartbroken over the death of his son, William Clements and his partners on the chamber decided to name the airport in memory of James.

"Not only was it a memorial to his son, but to all of the veterans of World War I," said Geraldine Higgs, a local historian who has written about James Clements Airport.

The airport’s main hangar was constructed in 1929 and its administration building was completed a year later. In 1931, Henry Dora was appointed as the first airport manager. the hangar was later named after him.

In 1939, the airport was deeded to the city of Bay City in order to qualify for federal money under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

Throughout much of the 1930s and 40s, there were several flying clubs that would have upward of 80 members sharing one or two airplanes, said Binder.

“Those clubs were the genesis of the airport,” he said.

The goal of the agreement

About 10 years ago, the city had a structural evaluation done on the Dora hangar and repair estimates approached the $1 million mark, said Baranski.

"It'd probably be more expensive in today's dollars," he said.

Establishing a public-private partnership agreement with the city doesn't mean repairs to the hangar will happen overnight, said Dave Huiskens, another principle with Valley Aero Club and a pilot who has 40 years of experience in teaching aviation.

"The first step is creating more energy and excitement around the airport," said Huiskens. "We know the city is strapped for resources and it doesn't have a lot of money for things like marketing. That 's what we intend to do.

"We're going to take whatever revenue is generated from activities at the hangar and have it help pay the subsidy from the city. Once those are paid off, then we can start investing in projects."

There have been eight major projects at the airport since 2006, including repaving of airline aprons, building additional hangars and creating a seaplane ramp and service drive. Bay City's airport is one of two full-service seaplane bases in Michigan. The other one is located in Traverse City.

Those projects totaled about $2.2 million. The Federal Aviation Administration paid for 90 percent of costs; the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, an arm of the Michigan Department of Transportation, paid 5 percent, and the city picked up the remainder, or about $110,000.

Those types of projects are expected to continue, even if an agreement is signed between the city and the aviation club. A $417,000 project is on the table for this year to rehabilitate one of the airport's taxiways and hangar taxi streets. The funding breakdown for such a project would be similar to past projects with the city paying about $20,000.

"Those projects hire local contractors and bring jobs to the area," said Dodge, the airport manager. "The community sees the city spending $50,000, but they also need to see the return on investment."

Bigger projects — such as the million-dollar-plus project to completely renovate the Dora hangar — could come down the road, but FAA officials have said they'd need to see a growing interest in the airport.

"They're not going to give us a million bucks if there's only four people out here flying around," said Binder.

That could mean opening the hangar up for non-aviation-related events, such as groups hosting a seminar or corporate event, or weddings, as was the case in August, when a Bay City couple tied the knot after working through a dizzying amount of red tape. Non-aviation events require permission from the FAA and the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, in addition to the city.

"With an agreement in place, we can manage those kinds of headaches," said Huiskens. "We know all of the entities and understand everything that needs to be done."

The idea of a public-private partnership with smaller, municipal airports isn't out of the ordinary, says William Dunn, vice president of airport advocacy for the Airport Owners and Pilots Association, a national aviation interest organization.

Dunn pointed to Los Angeles county, which owns six general aviation airports. A number of years ago, the county decided it didn't want to be in the airport operation business, so it contracted a management team.

"It's a partnership that definitely benefits both sides," said Dunn.

"To make it work, though, there needs to be promotion of the airport. A lot of people don't understand what an airport means to a community. Most people don't think of airports as part of the transportation system, but they need to think of it in the same way as a local highway — an entry into the community."

Building interest

What the Valley Aero Club hopes to do is attract more aviation enthusiasts, in addition to businesses.

This summer, Huiskens is hosting a pilot ground school to help new pilots pass the written part of a pilot's license test. Members of the club will also lean on their popular Father's Day breakfast, which annually draws hundreds of families. 

 "We would love to get more young people out here interested in flying," said LaPorte.

That could be easier said than done.

The high cost of flying is one hurdle, says Huiskens. The bigger barrier is making flying exciting again.

"People in my era grew up with the space program and flying was this extraordinary thing," he said. "Today, flying is routine. They take it for granted. Students today are really into instant gratification. When they realize they can't become a pilot in a week, it's discouraging."

To entice pilots today to fly into Bay City, LaPorte says he’d love to have a few cars parked at the airport that they could use to drive into Bay City for lunch and a day of shopping.

“Pilots love to fly,” he said. “It’d be an easy way for them to come in, park their plane, get in a car and head into the city for the day, then fly back.”

He said the airport will never be the size of MBS International Airport in Freeland, 15 miles away, but it could also be a useful aviation port for businesses.

“We could try and attract larger corporations to use this airport as a business hub,” he said.

Trevor Keys, an economic development specialist at Bay Future Inc., said the organization hasn’t specifically used the airport as a marketing tool to bring in business, but says it has potential.

“We’d definitely want to use all of our assets when recruiting industry to our area,” he said.

It's also important for the city that the airport succeeds. If the airport closed, it would actually cost the city more money, said Commissioner Chad Sibley, 8th Ward.

The Clements family, through a trust, donated the land for the airport to the city. If the city closed the airport, it would have to give back the land, he said.

Additionally, the city would have to pay back millions of dollars to the FAA that it has procured over the years.

"That's why we need a good plan for the airport that can create some revenues," he said. "I think the Valley Aero Club can do that."

About 40 private hangars are leased from the airport today by private pilots. Only a few businesses, including Monitor Township-based Dice Corp. and Standish-based Magline Inc., rent hangar space at the airport for business.

Additionally, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources flies out of James Clements, weather-pending, on a daily basis to do fish counts.

The City Commission could vote to approve the agreement at it's 7:30 p.m. meeting on March 31 at Bay City Hall, 300 Washington Ave.

Commission President Lori Dufresne, 4th Ward, says she needs to she what revisions city staff makes to the agreement before making any decisions on it.

Commissioner Elizabeth Peters, 2nd Ward, said she anticipates the agreement to go through and looks forward to the partnership.

"They have some good ideas and they really want to help the airport," said Peters. "They want to have a place they're proud of and feel good about for keeping and flying airplanes.

"It's nothing but positive."

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