Tri-City aviators move views on future of Vista Field Airport

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldApril 9, 2013 

Most Tri-City aviators have moved from supporting an enhanced Vista Field Airport to endorsing a less-expensive airport option after hearing the improvements could cost $42.6 million, Port of Kennewick commissioners heard Tuesday.

But Michael Mehaffy, project manager with consultant Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., said the so-called no-action alternative that follows the 2011 airport master plan is something the consultants cannot recommend.

The firm's recently finished study outlines three options: follow the 2011 Vista Field master plan, invest in a major expansion of the airport and its facilities, or close the airport and develop it for other uses.

Mehaffy said the no-action alternative, which relied on almost $18 million from the private sector for airport projects along with $2.4 million from the port, does not solve the fundamental problems that have kept the small general aviation airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center from growing.

He said the airport would continue to cut into the revenue the port could use for other forms of economic development, while delivering little benefit to the region.

The enhanced scenario and the redevelopment option can succeed, Mehaffy said.

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 five 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 report.

There also would be 1,400 condos or apartments on the top stories of mixed-use buildings, according to the report.

The redevelopment option would result in a gain of $3.7 million after the land sales pay the $11.9 million estimated cost for closing the airport and preparing it for development, including some infrastructure such as roads, according to the report.

The port has been struggling to find a way to revitalize the 90-acre airfield after deciding more than three years ago to keep it open in hopes of recruiting more businesses. The consulting firm was hired to do a $225,000 independent review after efforts to find an airport operator fell through.

Now that the port has received the final report, commissioners are moving forward on making a decision on the future of Vista Field.

A public hearing on revising the port's comprehensive plan will be held as part of a special port meeting at 7 p.m. April 17 at the Tri-Cities Business & Visitor Center in Kennewick.

That plan would need to be modified for operations at Vista Field to change.

Port Commission President Skip Novakovich and Commissioner Gene Wagner said they intend to make a decision at that meeting.

Commissioner Don Barnes said he won't rule that out, but doesn't want to commit to the date in case more time is needed.

Robert Hodgman, aviation senior planner with Washington State Department of Transportation, told port commissioners that he believes growth in the Tri-Cities will make Vista Field a vital part of the transportation system in the future.

As metro areas grow and more commercial traffic comes to an airport, then general aviation moves to other airports in the area, he explained.

While the Richland Airport is growing its capacity, Hodgman said he believes the Richland Airport would be unable to accommodate all future general aviation demands.

"Once that airport is gone, it is gone," he said.

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