Huron County commissioners said they are open to possibilities, but they have many unanswered questions about a proposal to close the county airport and open a new regional airport with Erie County.
“I think the concept of a regional airport would be good for north-central Ohio,” commissioner Gary Bauer said. “But we’ve got to make sure Huron County is treated fairly.”
After meeting Thursday with Erie County officials, FAA representatives and residents in the county administration building in Norwalk, all three commissioners said they will consider suggestions. But they emphasized that Huron County’s airport is in good shape and already serves the needs of the county.
Erie County officials and Joe Jackson, the consultant who recently completed a feasibility study on Erie County’s need for a new airport, stressed the benefits for the entire region that a new airport could provide.
At face value, the situation is simple.
Problem — Erie County needs a new airport. NASA Plum Brook needs a 9,000-foot runway as close as possible. The FAA probably won’t give certification and funding for another airport in the area unless an existing public airport closes. Huron County has an airport that probably won’t be able to expand past a 5,000-foot runway.
Solution — build a new regional airport with a 9,000-foot runway on Plum Brook property to serve NASA and commercial, corporate, cargo and private aircraft for Huron and Erie counties.
New problem for Huron County — It would have to close its airport, repay federal grants, turn over any profits from sale of airport land to the new airport and also come up with several million dollars to help build a new airport in Erie County.
Throw figures about possible new industry and jobs into the mix and it gets complicated. So Huron County commissioners want more information, which they plan to get while the FAA reviews the feasibility study just turned in.
“The same concerns are still there. What’s in it for Huron County?” commissioner Ralph Fegley said. He pointed out the airport currently generates about $500,000 in economic benefits per year for the county with a county subsidy of just $20,000. “I don’t want to give up our (FAA) certification now,” he added.
“We need a more realistic figure of economic benefits.” Fegley said, based on the feasibility study’s prediction a potential benefit of $30 million over 10 years. If that figure is correct, he said, then it wouldn’t make financial sense for Huron County to incur debt and give up airport certification for a facility in another county for an unknown portion of that benefit.
Commissioner Mike Adelman agreed. “From a purely economic standpoint, it could benefit this region, but our airport benefits the county now,” he said. “We have to make sure there is some equity so all the benefits aren’t on one side of the fence.”
Erie County commissioner Nancy McKeen said she believes the two counties can work out an agreement to benefit both. “I feel optimistic that our counties can work this out,” she said. “The benefits will be spread over both counties.” McKeen said both counties would gain jobs and economic benefits that would result from a new airport.
Many groups are interested in the ultimate decision by Huron County Commissioners. Along with Huron and Erie County officials, FAA officials and residents, representatives from Ohio Department of Transportation, federal officials and various businesses attended the meeting.
David Stringer, director of the Plum Brook management office, said the facility has a federal contract for testing the replacement for the NASA’s space shuttle. Now large cargo items such as satellites must be flown into Cleveland or Mansfield and then trucked to the Plum Brook station. But taking sensitive equipment over roads runs the risk of “jiggles and jars,” he said, so direct delivery by air is the best way to bring in equipment.
Stringer said Plum Brook needs to get a runway for direct delivery by 2011, when it will begin a new testing program. “Any place that doesn’t have direct delivery is problematic,” he said. “The more abuse it (equipment) takes, the less reliable it is.”
FAA officials stressed during the meeting that any decision to create a regional airport must be made at the local level. “FAA’s role is to promote local planning,” said Ernest Gubry, an environmental protection specialist for FFA. He emphasized the agency would not push any entity to close an airport.
But he did say that a regional airport with a runway that NASA could also use seems like a viable possibility. “That does seem beneficial,” he said.
Jackson, vice president of the consulting firm that completed the feasibility study for a new airport in Erie County, said, “It became apparent that Erie County needed more airport.” He added that the entire region could benefit from a new airport. “There are more opportunities here than challenges,” he said.
He has now given his report to FAA officials and they will take about a month to review the report. Fegley said he plans to have another meeting with Erie County officials and FAA after that review.
If the counties come to an agreement to build a regional airport, Jackson said, the process of required studies and reports, FAA certification and construction would take from four to five years.