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Airport's future up in the air?

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:47 PM

Those pushing a deal to create a regional airport for Erie and Huron counties will find Huron County officials still need to be convinced it would benefit the county.

Erie County and NASA officials have discussed the proposal to create a regional airport at NASA Plum Brook for about a year. Those discussions have become a little more intense in the last month, with a feasibility study requested by the Erie County Commissioners almost complete.

The Huron County Commissioners have now met with Erie County and Federal Aviation Association officials.

"The Erie County Commissioners were a bit taken back that we weren't more enthusiastic about this proposal," said Huron County Commissioner Mike Adelman. "It would be a big economic boom for the area, there's no denying that. But we have to look at the big picture, where it puts our county."

The regional airport would cost at least $56 million to build, with $12 million coming from Erie and Huron County. It would feature a 9,000-foot landing strip that would allow large planes, such as 747s, to land at NASA Plum Brook. It would serve primarily as a cargo airport that would allow NASA to have large equipment delivered on site, rather than to Cleveland or Mansfield.

However, because of Federal Aviation Association regulations regarding airspace, in order for the airport to receive any federal funding, the Huron County Airport would have to give up its FAA certification. That FAA certification brings about $150,000 worth of grants each year, which are used for maintenance.

But, it could take at least five years to build a new airport at NASA, during which Huron County would be responsible for maintaining its airport, while the annual $150,000 grant would go to the new regional airport, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.

In addition, because of FAA regulations, if the county sold the airport, the money would not come back to the county but be transferred to the new regional airport.

"A lot of questions need to be answered," said commissioner Gary Bauer. "We don't want to stand in the way of progress. But, we need to make sure Huron County gets a fair shake."

The benefits to the project are numerous, said Erie County Commissioner Nancy McKeen. Being able to deliver large scale equipment directly to NASA would allow it to take on more contracts and would also lead to the creation of airport "support businesses."

"You can see the benefits will be far reaching," she said. "You have to really look at what an airport in this region would bring in jobs. Where are we if we don't do this, in terms of jobs and progress?"

Other potential benefits include capitalizing as a cargo airport because the turnpike is so close. And while it would not be a commercial airport like Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, those in the Sandusky tourism industry, such as Kalahari and Cedar Point, support the airport because private passenger planes would be allowed to land there.

While the benefits to NASA and Erie County are clear, not as clear to Huron County officials is the direct benefit to Huron County.

"In one meeting we had, it was described as Huron County getting a 'ripple effect' from this," Adelman said. "We need to see more than a ripple effect."

McKeen said that, while she understood the concerns, many people live in Huron County and work in Erie County.

"We can no longer look at ourselves as an entity. We need to look at everything regionally, that's the only way we're going to survive," she said.

Bauer said: "I have said it's a good concept for North Central Ohio, but we represent Huron County. Whatever action we take has to be good for Huron County."

And the Huron County Airport is an attractive asset that business look at when considering a new location, said Airport Board President Rick Brown.

In 2006, the airport's budget was $164,000 $70,000 from hangar rentals, $60,000 from fuel sales, $10,000 from the county, $2,000 from the Norwalk Raceway and the rest was carry over from the previous year. According to FAA estimates, 6,400 flights takeoff or land at the airport each year.

Molinaro said the Huron County airport is "doing very well."

"The airport board's position is we have a nice facility and a nice airport," Brown said. "It is a lifeline to a growing community, one of most important streets in any town... I'd personally be hard pressed to want to give it up."

Erie County Commissioners and an FAA representative will likely meet in Huron County with the commissioners in late July.

"With all that said, does that close the door on Huron County's interest? With the potential of real economic development ... that doesn't close the door," Adelman said, adding that if the counties become partners there will need to be a clear benefit to Huron County. "We need to make sure we're not getting sold down the river."

Brown said the focus of the airport board is on maintaining the facility it has.

"We've just been going along and listening, we really don't know if its something beneficial to the county. Listening and talking doesn't cost you anything ... yet."

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