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The little airport that couldThe little airport that could

How passionate, dedicated users rallied to save Park TownshipHow passionate, dedicated users rallied to save Park Township

Nestled less than a mile from the brilliant white sand beaches of Lake Michigan, tucked neatly across the street from the fairground, Park Township Airport was the source of great community pride when it was dedicated in 1937 and brought the township and the neighboring village of Holland into the web of the national air transportation system. The bustling two-runway site was the 110th airport in Michigan built by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA).

What Park Township Airport advocates learned

Support for an airport has to be organized and consistent. Pilots and airport supporters must get together and focus on the common goal of keeping the airport alive and viable, establish a strategy, and speak and work consistently toward the goal.

  • It takes money to save an airport. Airport users have to pledge not only their efforts and willingness to take action; they have to put up their money to pay for the cost of lobbying activities.
  • Be pragmatic and flexible when negotiating. Ideological stands or hard line political positions don’t play well when dealing with politicians who are just trying to solve problems.
  • Show up. Public servants often judge support for an issue by the number of people who make their feelings in favor of it known. if you support your airport but you don’t let the decision-makers know it, you don’t exist.
  • When making a public presentation, write it down ahead of time and practice it; make sure it fits within the time allotted.
  • Come prepared with solutions, not problems. It’s always easier to be dealing with amendments to the original plan you wrote than to have to fight to amend someone else’s plan that you don’t much like.
  • Reach out for help. AOPA has a knowledgeable Airports staff—make use of it. Their experience with airports across the country may give you some ideas for success with the specific issues you face. Try to get your state aviation department to help.
  • Get influential community members who use the airport to talk with the relevant politicians one on one and explain the value of the airport to the community. Get financial data on the money the airport brings into the community and make sure it gets publicized.
  • Know at least one member of the local media and feed him or her information on the value of the airport. Write short, coherent letters to the editor explaining the value of the airport.
  • Never lose your temper when in a public meeting regarding the airport.
  • Monitor community blogs and respond directly to every anti-airport comment made with facts and hard data.
  • Have an example of someone who earns a modest living and owns a share of an airplane to show that the airport supporters are not a bunch of wealthy users of taxpayer land. If you claim that a cross-section of the community supports the airport, be able to prove it with a cross-section of the community.
  • Compare the runway to the streets in front of each resident’s house. Each is a connection to the world. Get records of public benefit flying from the airport—people transported for medical treatment at no charge by volunteer pilots, environmental/conservation support flights made by volunteer pilots, and any military use of the airport.
  • Emphasize the essential nature of the airport in the event of a disaster. An earthquake will drop bridges; tornadoes make roads impassable; ice storms put power lines across roads, stopping traffic—the airport is how aid will get in and the injured will be gotten out for treatment when the hospitals are swamped. The airport is the lifeline of the community.

Protecting your airport

Pressure on public and privately owned airports continues to mount. This pressure takes many forms, including curfews, noise restrictions, lack of improvements, residential encroachment, and calls to close the airport. The general aviation community is often unaware of what’s boiling in the pot at their airport until it is too late to turn down the heat. Knowing what is happening in the political environment surrounding a local airport is important to preserve the general aviation infrastructure into the future. The more time available to counter negative impacts on a local airport, the higher the possibility for preserving the airport or avoiding restrictions. The AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) provides the vehicle for AOPA members to work in concert with AOPA to establish an early warning system. ASN volunteers act as the eyes and ears of the association at their local airport. Visit the Web site to see if your local airport needs a volunteer (www.aopa.org/asn).

ASN’s newest tool, AOPA’s Guide for Airport Advocates: Participating in the Planning Process, guides you through the steps of the land use and airport planning process, offers examples of successful advocacy efforts, and introduces the buzz words, political groups, and industry practices that help pilots become effective airport advocates. Download this resource.

Nestled less than a mile from the brilliant white sand beaches of Lake Michigan, tucked neatly across the street from the fairground, Park Township Airport was the source of great community pride when it was dedicated in 1937 and brought the township and the neighboring village of Holland into the web of the national air transportation system. The bustling two-runway site was the 110th airport in Michigan built by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The war years saw heavy activity when Park Township Airport hosted a Civilian Pilot Training Program school as the nation paid for flight training for the young who went on to fly for the Army, Navy, and Marines—as well as some women, many of whom became WASP. In the decades that followed, aircraft owners, flight schools, charter operators, and flying clubs called Park Township Airport home. Vacation homeowners would fly in for weekends or summer-long stays. Annual open houses and small airshows were well attended and helped build a core of dedicated friends and supporters.

But like many of America’s airports, gradually population pressure and a lack of zoning foresight by community leaders hurt the airport. Houses crowded its perimeter. Some homeowners began to complain of airport noise and assert that because a larger airport had been built in nearby Holland, Park Township Airport should be closed. Trees were allowed to grow into the approach paths despite Michigan’s Aeronautics Code that requires property owners adjacent to airports to remove any obstructions. Township leaders seemed so afraid of the response that they never required the property owners who had built houses off the ends of the runways to comply with the state law.

By the 1980s Park Township Airport was in trouble. It continued to bring revenue into the community, but it was a target for those who wanted the land for pet projects. Sentiment was increasing that it was land only used for rich airplane owners. The residents of the community acquired a reputation for unwillingness to pay for anything that did not have an economic return easily described in a sound bite.

The pilots of Park Township Airport organized and worked with township officials who saw the airport as a benefit and did not want condos or McMansions in its place. Through the mysterious ways of politics and community dynamics a strange sort of privatization of the airport emerged. Under terms dictated by a Faustian deal with the anti-airport faction to avoid closing the airport, the pilots formed a corporation, Ottawa Aviation Inc., which leased the entire airport for about $1,500 per year, getting the township out from under the not inconsiderable expense of running the airport. Ottawa Aviation was prohibited from obtaining loans, paying its officers, or even selling its stock, yet it was to take over all operation of the airport, catch up on thousands of dollars of maintenance the township had deferred—and, within 10 years, spend a minimum of $244,000 on resurfacing the paved runway, rebuilding hangars, landscaping, and other capital improvements. It was not allowed to run any commercial operation such as a maintenance shop or flight school to help raise the funds.

The term of the lease was for 20 years, so it would be essentially impossible to obtain federal grants for improvements as they require the airport to stay open for 20 years after the grant is received. Even if Ottawa could somehow get a federal improvement grant, it was required to raise an equal sum of money and deposit it in an escrow account to repay the township if, for any reason, the grant had to be returned to the FAA. The anti-airport crowd sat back and waited for Ottawa to fail so the airport could be closed.

The end nears

By 2007 it had become obvious that the lease was not working. It was not possible for Ottawa to raise the needed money despite financial contributions by members. Its only other sources of revenue were hangar rents and the sale of avgas. However, it appeared that most of the township board members wanted the airport to survive. A poll of residents found that a firm majority desired that the airport remain an airport, yet only a minority was willing to use tax dollars to keep it. With such schizophrenic direction from the community, the board and Ottawa Aviation decided it was time to junk the existing lease and find a way to keep the Park Township Airport alive and viable while complying with the perceived will of the people. At the same time, the anti-airport forces were gearing up to shut down the airport.

Roger Rushmeyer, the unpaid president of Ottawa Aviation, retained me as the attorney to help secure a new lease—one that would allow Ottawa Aviation to run the airport in a financially viable fashion. Even then, Ottawa would still be relying heavily on the efforts of volunteers. Two leases were prepared. The first was for Ottawa to lease the airport from the township for a period of 30 years with options to renew, so that the airport could qualify for FAA improvement grant money. It outlined the duties of Ottawa to maintain and make improvements to the airport and a general timeline for those improvements, recognizing that airport improvement grant money was going to be essential. The second was a nonexclusive FBO lease, for Ottawa, along the lines of a standard FBO lease. It would allow Ottawa to make money by eventually expanding into a full-service FBO so it could afford to pay the costs of running the airport, mowing the grass, and dealing with the local snowfall—often measured in tens of feet.

At the January township board meeting, Park Township Airport supporters came prepared to argue for the benefits of the airport and replacing the current lease. Ottawa had encouraged those involved to write out what they wanted to say so that they sounded coherent as elected officials hear angry rants and tend to shut them out. It worked. The anti-airport commentators tended to ramble and bluster. The board voted to establish an airport committee and named a cross-section of board members, pro- and anti-airport as well as the officers of Ottawa Aviation to the committee.

Committee meetings began in February. They rapidly developed a pattern—everyone involved would read the current draft of the lease and mark up his or her copy while getting very worried about some items that were unworkable. It was time-consuming, painstaking, arduous work.

Everyone went into the negotiations thinking it would be finished in one or two months. But with each draft, new concerns were voiced and were addressed at subsequent committee meetings. They ranged from the term of the lease (long enough to get improvement fund grants and attract investors, but short enough that there was not a feeling of “loss of control” by the township; it eventually became a 25-year lease with five-year renewal periods so that there was always at least 20 years to go so grants could be obtained), to what improvements were needed in what order, through such minor details as color of the hangars (sometimes politicians are obsessive-compulsive).

Then, at the conclusion of the June 2, 2008, meeting, there were suddenly no more proposals, no new sections to negotiate. The committee members looked at each other with a mixture of amazement and accomplishment.

Slow down

Then everything went into slow motion. The lease was presented to the full township board for consideration, and there it stopped. July passed. August evaporated. In early September it was apparent that the board was not going to accept the work of its committee but was going to get involved in the lease language.

The full board met on September 11 and raised specific questions regarding the lease. A meeting of the airport committee was set for October 3, 2008—and committee members were met by nearly 100 spectators, including the board members who were not on the committee. The one board member on the committee who had been borderline contentious throughout the months of meetings played to the audience and was openly critical of the airport and the ability of Ottawa Aviation to run it. When he made a crack about a waste of taxpayers’ land he was reminded that the Park Township Airport was specifically part of the region’s disaster plan and the area’s lifeline to medical care and food when things go bad.

After that, things went pretty smoothly. A revised lease was recommended to the full board of trustees. One week later the Park Township board voted on the lease. It was five to two in favor.

It was over, but it was just beginning. The men and women who had given their time and effort to save Park Township Airport succeeded. Park Township Airport again has a future. Ottawa Aviation officers went into the Township offices and signed the lease, then went to the airport because there was work to be done. They had found a way to save their beloved airport and it was time to roll up their sleeves and make the plan work.

Rick Durden is a pilot and an aviation attorney now living in Colorado.

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