Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New aviation commissioner settling into role at Griffiss International Airport (KRME), Rome, Oneida County, New York

ROME  -  Oneida County has a new aviation commissioner.

Russell Stark started in April, and is the fifth person to run the county airport in a decade.

In that 10 years, Oneida County has moved its airport from Oriskany to the former Griffiss Air Force Base, renamed the facility Griffiss International Airport and attracted two aircraft maintenance companies that employ hundreds of people.

Massive capital projects to improve the aging runways and adapt the enormous Air Force hangars to civilian uses have been undertaken, and many are complete.

And now, a terminal and U.S. Customs building is under construction, and the NUAIR consortium is operating an FAA-certified unmanned aircraft systems testing ground out of a revamped nose-dock hangar.

As the airport has moved forward, there have been criticisms of the choices officials have made about tenants, and questions about airport operations. It also has been said that county officials, including county Executive Anthony Picente, haven’t given the airport commissioners enough opportunity to act on their own ideas.

Stark, who is being paid $80,067, said he is excited by the opportunities at Griffiss, thinks good things are happening there and wants to work closely with Picente to help Griffiss reach its full potential.

“I am here for the challenge,” the Holland Patent High School graduate said. “I am going to do what is best for Oneida County and continue to move the airport forward.”

Frank Tallarino of Rome, Oneida County Board of Legislators Democratic minority leader, said he likes Stark’s background, but said the job might be tough.

“The longevity is not good,” he said, referring to the many previous commissioners. “If you don’t give them a free hand to put the direction of the airport in a way that is economically feasible, it’s not going to be successful.”

Picente, however, countered that he had no intention of holding Stark back and had not done so with previous commissioners.

“I am the executive and I have a vision of what I see will move the county forward,” he said. “No one is stifled in terms of their ideas and their ability to manage.”

Stark’s goals largely are the same as those of his predecessors:

Attract regular commercial passenger flights to Griffiss. Stark is aware of the county’s past attempts to bring in an airline, and said he is willing to wait until the time is right.

“I am hoping they see that we have an attractive area and there is support from the community,” he said.

The “whipped cream on the cake” would be the construction of a 7,000-square-foot jet bridge and passenger area for such flights, but that would only be built after a commitment was made by an airline, he said.

Build more structures to house additional tenants on unused land near the runways. An area known as “The Triangle” off the runways is viewed as a prime spot for development. Stark said he’d like to see an aviation manufacturer or aircraft maintenance company end up there, and would like to take advantage of the state’s Start-Up New York grant program to help fund those plans.

Keep the tenants the airport already has. Two of the airport’s biggest occupants are aircraft maintenance companies MidAir USA and Premier Aviation. MidAir has been struggling to pay its rent recently after one of its major clients backed off expected projects. That aside, Stark said it’s important for tenants to be happy with the airport.

“If you keep your tenants, more tenants will come,” he said.

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