The future of Minnesota’s Isle Airport, a small grass strip on Mille Lacs Lake, remains unknown following a March 4 town hall hosted by AOPA.
About 70 attendees including city leaders, business owners, residents, and pilots gathered at McQuoid’s Inn to discuss the fate of the airfield, which faces imminent closure unless the city acts on an easement to clear overgrown trees on the approach end of its runway.
“The private use status of the airfield has strangled the potential, not just for the pilots who want to use the airport, but the community of Isle. Clearing the trees and working toward public use status will open opportunities for Isle,” said Dave Retka, president of the Isle Airport Association.
Retka also reassured locals that the city is not spending local tax dollars on the airport—the hangar leases and funds raised by the airport association cover the current insurance and maintenance costs.
AOPA’s Great Lakes Regional Manager Kyle Lewis presented on AOPA’s airport advocacy work and urged residents to look at the airport as a valuable community asset—for educational opportunities, for tourism dollars, and as an overall economic driver for the local community.
Last year, the Isle Airport Association completed a survey of how members use the airport and where they spend money when visiting the area. In 2019, raw data showed that more than $51,000 was spent on local businesses in Isle by pilots using the airport.
“City council has a tough job prioritizing a tight budget on city assets, everyone must be aware of the needs of the city residents. A decision on an airport cannot be a knee-jerk reaction but look into the future 10 or 15 years. It’s clear that the airport is bigger than the real estate it occupies,” said Lewis.
A number of residents made comments about the sentimental value of the airport and pilots in the region spoke of the safety concerns of the tall trees. The consensus of those who spoke up was to give the airport a chance to be public, and make it safe and available to everyone.
Ben Thuringer, a pilot, AOPA member, and operator of Madden’s Resort on nearby Gull Lake, touted the value that local airports bring to businesses like his. He said that if it weren’t for East Gull Lake Airport, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in the area would be lost. Thuringer said businesses rely on aviation events as a source of opportunity and openly market the airport as an option to travel to East Gull Lake. He told the crowd that Isle Airport could be a destination for aviation events and bolster the community: “It’s a gem, don’t lose it.”
Along with AOPA, members of the Recreational Aviation Foundation and the Minnesota Pilots Association participated in the town hall. RAF Liaison Paul Noskowiak provided insight to the RAF’s airport grant program—aimed at helping small, recreational-use airports with infrastructure upgrades.
However, not everyone was on board with keeping the airport open. One local business owner spoke of using the airport property as an RV park with enough room to accommodate 500 campsites—though nothing has been proposed and the idea is purely hypothetical. The business owner explained that the city could operate the RV park and see income from the venture—more than what the airport contributes. The suggestion garnered mixed reviews from residents who were concerned about the operational needs of the campsite and lack of city employees to maintain it with other city needs taking higher priority.
Facing a looming deadline to make a decision, the city council met March 10 for public comment on the issue and will vote April 14 on the fate of Isle Airport.