Port officials urged to make decision without vote on Vista Field

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 24, 2013 

Some Port of Kennewick residents told port commissioners Wednesday to make a decision on Vista Field Airport without taking it to a public vote.

Bill McKay of Kennewick said the conclusion from the recently released draft report is evident -- voters wouldn't be willing to put up the kind of money it would take to enhance the small general aviation airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.

"There are a lot of things that are nice in life, but they've all got to be paid for," he said after he and about 30 other citizens listened to a presentation on the conclusions from the draft study. It was the first of two meetings on the study; a second meeting to accept public comment is tonight.

The port has been struggling to find a way to revitalize the 90-acre airfield after deciding two years ago to keep the airport open in hopes of recruiting more businesses.

After efforts to find an operator for the airport fell through, the port hired Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. for a $225,000 independent review.

Enhancing the airport and redeveloping it are feasible, as long as the port and its citizens are willing to make the decision and pay for that decision, said Michael Mehaffy, project manager with the consulting firm.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves, but either scenario would be a strong asset for the community," he said.

The public cost of enhancing the airport would be about $42.6 million, after land sales, Mehaffy said.

Port officials told the Herald that paying that price for enhancement most likely would mean an increase in property taxes. Vista Field Airport, unlike other Tri-City airports, does not qualify for Federal Aviation Administration money most airports use to pay for capital improvements because it is too close to the Pasco and Richland airports.

Having FAA support is one of the things that would help close the gap economically, Mehaffy said. But the FAA has told the port that Vista Field will not be able to get federal dollars.

The redevelopment option would result in a gain of $3.7 million after land sales pay the $11.9 million cost of closing the airport and preparing it for development, including some infrastructure such as roads, Mehaffy said. The redevelopment could be phased to be close to a "pay as it goes" basis.

Enhancing the airport would involve building a new airport operator building, new hangars and a loop road, as well as attracting businesses to develop 120,000 square feet of new commercial, retail, office and industrial development on about 5 acres.

Redeveloping the airport would open up 75 acres for more than 1 million square feet of retail, commercial, office and industrial buildings, according to the draft report. There would also be 1,400 condos or apartments on the top stories of mixed-used buildings, according to the draft report.

Enhancement would add about $17.5 million to the tax rolls, while redevelopment would mean about $408.6 million added, according to the draft study.

If the port was just trying to maximize the amount of money from the 113 acres that makes up the airport, Mehaffy said he thinks a conclusion would have occurred some time ago. There is a mix of benefits, costs and trade-offs with both options that the port and its citizens need to consider, he said.

Port Commission President Skip Novakovich said he is amazed what the different alternatives would cost the public.

Former state Rep. Shirley Hankins of Richland told commissioners that she believes the report shows it is time to close the airport.

"It's time to take a good look at using that property for the benefit of the community instead of being in debt all the time," she said.

Pilot Mike White of Kennewick questioned whether it was reasonable to expect private development in the redevelopment scenario.

Airport supporters have argued the airport can't be judged on math alone. They say an airport is infrastructure that allows people to come in and out of the community and shouldn't be required to make money.

But John David of Kennewick told commissioners they should shut the airport down and then assist businesses who made an investment at the airport in relocating. He said this was the most "slam dunk" thing he has witnessed in his 57 years.

While former Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman and others told commissioners not to spend up to $90,000 taking Vista Field's future to a public vote, Ed Frost of Kennewick said he does want to see that kind of vote.

Frost said he'd rather have the public make the decision than have commissioners make it and have future elections influenced by people trying to sway the direction of the port.

The port will hold a 7 p.m. meeting todayat the Tri-Cities Business & Visitor Center, at 7130 W. Grandridge Boulevard, in Kennewick, to accept public comments on the draft study and the alternatives.Comments may be submitted to vistafield@portofkennewick.org and the Port of Kennewick, 350 Clover Island Drive, Suite 200, Kennewick, WA, 99336. The port is accepting comments on the draft study until 5 p.m. Feb. 11.

The final report will be issued shortly after the end of the comment period, Mehaffy said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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