Our Voice: Closing Vista Field makes most sense for Tri-Cities

March 31, 2013 

Sometimes, you have to just let go.

That's how we feel about the small but vocal contingent of folks still clinging to the idea that Vista Field is a viable airport and a valuable asset to our community at large.

The good fight has been fought, but it's time to move on.

We advocated for years for the Port of Kennewick to make a long-term decision on the airport, a facility that was left in limbo more often than not during the past decade.

When it was decided a couple of years back that the airport would remain open, we supported the decision.

But times have changed. Our enthusiasm for the airport is not what it once was. Vista Field has become a perk for a handful of users, not a community of aviators. And it has not become what the port envisioned when it decided to continue airport operations in 2010.

Much of that is the port's fault. The agency seemed to give a half-hearted effort in seeking a fixed-base operator to set up shop at the airport, placing unreasonable restrictions on potential operators. And the only person bidding on the opportunity didn't go out of his way to help the process along.

After the failed and faulty attempt to find an airport operator, the port decided a consulting firm should do an independent review of the 90-acre facility, which it operates at a loss each year. Operational losses came to $235,000 last year, according to the port.

The report gave three options: enhance the current facilities, redevelop the land for other uses or leave it as it currently sits.

Vista Field, which was once a training ground for landings on aircraft carriers, is largely a victim of its location. What was once wide open space has become the heart of the Tri-Cities retail and entertainment district.

The Three Rivers Convention Center, the Toyota Center, shopping, restaurants and other businesses surround the airport. With a convention center expansion and new hotel development scheduled, it hardly seems that a little used airport is the best use of 90 acres of prime real estate in the heart of it all.

The cost to the port to redevelop the land in preparation for sale would be around $12 million, according to the study. The sale of the land would cover those costs and likely net the port a profit.

The price of the airport enhancement plan would be around $42 million, and that would have to be paid by a voter-approved tax measure.

Because Vista Field is too close to the Pasco and Richland airports, it does not qualify for the Federal Aviation Administration money that most airports use to help pay for capital improvements.

Yes, we have two other airports within a short drive of Vista Field. And that's what makes this decision easier. The few planes and pilots primarily using Vista Field don't have far to relocate. Sure, it's a little more inconvenient than walking out the door and getting in your plane. We get that.

We can't blame the airport's supporters for feeling cheated, but the port needs to act in the best interests of all its constituents.

Relocating a few folks to benefit the community at large is just the kind of age-old development decisions that have faced public entities for years. It's never easy. And it's a tough deal for those on the losing end of the equation.

But sometimes difficult changes are necessary. And sometimes those who resist can be surprised by the opportunities it ends up delivering.

The Port of Kennewick will take public comment on Vista Field at an April 17 hearing. After that, port officials need to step up and make a decision. Spending $90,000 on a vote of the public would be another waste of money.

The Tri-City Development Council, Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau have all called for the airfield's closure and redevelopment.

We agree. It's time to use the land to create a major economic driver instead of a drain on public funds.

The best decision for the community is to close Vista Field.

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