Pilots might have thought keeping Vista Field open in Kennewick was a done deal, but not all Tri-Citians are sure the question that's been debated for more than a decade is settled.
Recent flare-ups in negotiations for Vista Field's fixed-based operator have refocused attention on the 90-acre airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center.
Since the port commission unanimously voted to keep Vista Field open in 2010, there's been no real changes to what the airport offers.
The airport is home to about 20 small aircraft but lacks a dedicated operator to provide services such as repairs and maintenance.
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After the port decided to keep the airport operating, local businesses that use the facility began expanding.
Cadwell Laboratories built a $2 million addition, and Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute broke ground on a $4 million building.
But Skip Novakovich, Port of Kennewick commission president, said neither solves the port's continuing struggles to make the airport financially viable.
Flying in the red
Operating at a loss for an airport isn't unusual. The Tri-Cities Airport is the only one of the four in the area operating in the black -- if depreciation isn't included, according to port officials.
And at Vista Field, the Port of Kennewick has lost an average of about $25,000 a year on the airport since 1995, according to port documents.
The loss has been as high as almost $90,000, and is projected to be $35,000 this year.
The airport was in the black by a few thousand dollars during 2006 and 2007 -- when Tuttle Aviation was the operator -- but that did not include the cost of port staff time, depreciation and other indirect expenses, according to documents.
Vista Field's economic benefit probably is minimal, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council.
The airport is important to the group of businesses that use it and the small group who base their planes there, he said, noting a bigger impact would require substantial capital investments.
A recent state Department of Transportation study estimated Vista Field brings in about $735,100 in visitor spending a year and provides 11 jobs in the community. It does not bring in any jobs from on-site businesses, according to the study.
However, Vista Field doesn't qualify for the Federal Aviation Administration money that most airports use to pay for capital improvements to draw more business because it's too close to the Richland and Pasco airports.
Before the commission voted in 2010 to keep the airport, Kennewick city officials asked the port to consider closing it so that the 90 acres near the city's key commercial and tourist district could be developed for other uses.
Tom Moak was Kennewick mayor at the time and was the city's point man in the discussions. "I saw too few people using the airport," he said.
"If it were closed, what would be lost?" he asked.
No one can say exactly how much Vista Field is used. The FAA does not track flights in and out of the airport, which includes a runway and hangars but lacks a tower.
The state Department of Transportation estimated this spring that the airport gets about 25,000 takeoffs and landings a year.
Some have questioned the accuracy of that number.
That's about half of the 55,000 takeoffs and landings officials say is seen at Tri-Cities Airport, which has commercial flights, two fixed-based operators including Bergstrom Aircraft, a flight school and about 134 based aircraft.
And even though the state estimates the Richland airport has 70,000 takeoffs and landings a year, port officials say the number is closer to 50,000.
The Richland Airport has about 160 aircraft based there, said John Haakenson, the Port of Benton's director of airports and operations.
The Prosser Airport has about 12,000 takeoffs and landings a year, with about 25 to 30 planes based there, Haakenson said. The state estimates takeoffs and landings at 6,000 annually.
At Vista Field, UPS flies in and out once a week, said Teresa Hancock, the port's real estate analyst.
And Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute flies surgeons and surgery staff in and out up to eight times a week, said Marlin Gimbel, the institute's director of professional relations.
While Vista Field was an important part of the company's decision to build its new building, it wasn't crucial, Gimbel said. Construction recently started on the new office, which is expected to open early 2013.
In February, Jay and Kathryn Jump moved BK Attorney Services, which provides legal mailing to bankruptcy attorneys, to one of Vista Field's corporate hangers.
While Vista Field played a part in the couple's decision to move there, Jay Jump, an aviation and bankruptcy attorney, said they probably still would have come to the Tri-Cities. So far, they've hired four employees in the Tri-Cities.
Carl Cadwell, owner of Cadwell Laboratories, said he saves time by having Vista Field so close to his office.
And Marjy Leggett, an airport support network volunteer for Vista Field, said events have been held at Vista Field, but not since Tuttle Aviation left in 2008.
It's difficult to bring events in without an operator, she said.
Just this month, Leggett, an organizer for an all-women's national air race, told the port that they were moving the race to another airport after the port questioned the legality of spending $25,000 on airport improvements needed to bring the event to Vista Field.
Getting a fair shake
Mike Shannon, who was negotiating with the port to become Vista Field's operator, and other pilots say Vista Field hasn't gotten a fair shake.
Disparaging remarks about Vista Field are discouraging people from bringing business to the airport, said Shannon of Kennewick's Shannon Dental.
"They are putting the final nails in the coffin," Shannon said.
Vista Field exceeds other airports in opportunity, but doesn't have the support from the port to reach its potential, he said. Those who arrive at Vista Field can walk to medical facilities, shopping, restaurants, hotels and the Toyota Center.
For Vista Field to blossom, it needs an operator and marketing soon, said Chep Gauntt, a Burbank farmer and a pilot.
"How can you get a crop if you never planted the seed, and you never watered and you never fertilized?" he said.
Gauntt said he liked being at Vista Field, where he built a hangar to accommodate his flights over his 2,000 acres to check for problems.
But he moved to the Tri-Cities Airport about four years ago because of the uncertainty over Vista Field's future.
Scott Musser of Musser Bros. Auctions and Real Estate said he agrees an operator is essential to turning Vista Field into the economic engine it could be. But investment is needed there.
What some fail to realize is that Vista Field is infrastructure that shouldn't be expected to make money, he said. "It's a 4,000-foot paved roadway to anywhere in the country," he said.
He also moved from the hangar he built there because of the uncertainty.
Cadwell said the same argument used for the airport could apply to the port's marina.
Not everyone has yachts, he said.
But port Executive Director Tim Arntzen said the marina pays for itself, bringing in $250,000 a year beyond what the port spends on it.
An independent review
Some have asked for an independent review of Vista Field.
Kennewick resident Kirk Williamson recently emailed about 250 people, encouraging them to let port commissioners know their opinion.
Williamson, who works in communications, said he's often wondered why an airport was centered in the Tri-City retail and commercial hub.
"I think there is so much potential in that area," he said. "And an airfield isn't part of it."
Shannon said he no longer sees a point to an independent review.
"This is Vista Field," he said. "It's a done deal. We need to move ahead with it."
It's naive to think the community can just have the airport or not, Shannon said. It would take time and money to shut it down.
But Williamson said the last study done on closing the airport wasn't believable. He said he is prepared to live with a credible study, even if it shows more value in keeping Vista Field open.
Arntzen said he hopes commissioners will ask for an independent review of the airport numbers.
The whole issue has become political, and he said he wants to avoid allegations that staff numbers are not accurate.
Novakovich said the port is approaching the point financially that he isn't sure if it can keep the airport open.
He's concerned the port will not be able to justify how much it takes to subsidize keeping it open.
Novakovich said he thinks voters should decide the airport's fate.
Take a look inside one of the more-than-50-years-old hangars inneed of renovation.