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What does the future hold for GH airport?

Alexander Sinn • Nov 26, 2018 at 7:00 AM

The Grand Haven City Council voted Monday to pursue a study to evaluate land use options at Grand Haven Memorial Airpark.

One of those options could be closing the airport, although City Manager Pat McGinnis says that’s highly unlikely due to federal funding conditions.

Manufacturing companies near the airport are considering expansion but don’t have room to grow, according to area Chamber of Commerce President Joy Gaasch, who made the case for the study at Monday’s meeting.

“It’s no secret that we don’t have available property for industrial expansion in Northwest Ottawa County at this time,” she said. “If the City Council is going to look at properties in the city for redevelopment, you need to have all of the data of what the true cost would be.”

The study would explore the cost of removing infrastructure, repurposing existing buildings, land division potential, the value of resulting lots and other possibilities.

Mayor Geri McCaleb and Councilmen Josh Brugger and Bob Monetza voted in favor of allowing the study, while Councilmen Michael Fritz and Dennis Scott opposed it.

Fritz called the airport an asset to the city, and said the timing was not right for a study, considering recent efforts to improve the airport.

Activity at the airport has grown in recent years, according to airport officials. The number of takeoff-and-landing operations, 5,386 as of Oct. 1, has nearly doubled each year since 2015, when there were 488 operations.

“Why would you want to put your heart into it if the Council comes back and says they want to abolish it?” Fritz said.

The mayor said a study would be helpful whether or not closing the airport is an option.

Closing the airport, or shrinking the airport’s footprint, however, are likely off the table. The city is required through an agreement not to close the airport in the 20 years after it receives federal funding, according to McGinnis.

“Those lingering questions are going to be there unless we get the data and make up our mind,” McCaleb said. “I think it’s going to be valuable for both sides to make their case, not to say that there’s one side or the other side.” 

Funding the airport 

Ninety percent of the airport is funded federally, 5 percent by the state of Michigan and 5 percent by the city of Grand Haven. For a half-million-dollar project, for example, the city would be responsible for $25,000.

The airport remains a difficult funding item for the city, McGinnis said. The City Council will consider in December the approval of over $17,000 toward tree-cutting to keep airspace clear for takeoffs and landings. Federal funds assisted with the initial clearing, but the recurring project is left to the municipality and the airport. 

The airport’s manager, Earle Bares, said the airport is largely self-sustaining, as revenues from hanger rentals cover the majority of expenses. Funding priorities are aimed at safety issues, he said, including maintaining runways and tree trimming. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require runway resurfacing every three years, he added, but the FAA does not often help with other maintenance, like repairing hangers. 

Any encroachment of industry on the airport would result in safety concerns, Bares said, and shutting down the north-south runway would prevent landings during dangerous crosswinds.

The airport is an emergency landing site for Chicago air traffic control, he said, and is frequented by the U.S. National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and Aero Med services. 

Local pilot Jeff Beswick and members of the airport board spoke out against the study at the City Council meeting. Beswick said the city and Chamber should pursue a more “comprehensive” study and treat the airport as an asset.

“I honestly don’t know why the city can’t seem to find resources to support its airport in the way that it seems find resources to support its parks and its waterfront and its beach and its other infrastructure,” he said. “It seems like the airport’s treated differently.”

The airport capital improvement plan entails tree cutting in 2019, building 10 new hangers in 2023 and another tree-clearing in 2024.

If funding cannot be acquired for the land use study, McGinnis said, an in-house analysis will likely be considered.

Gaasch said the study would consider the value of the airport, and not seek to devalue it.

“We’ve got folks in the industrial park that are thinking today of what their future is there,” she said. “At least you’re (the City Council) sending a message to them as well that you’re doing your due diligence.”

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