Port of Kennewick taxpayers were just about evenly divided on the future of Vista Field Airport at the public hearing on the issue Thursday night.
Some pilots and others agreed that the price tag on redeveloping the airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center is too high.
Pilots said the small airport could be improved and made viable for less than the $42.6 million estimate in a recently released draft study.
Others said closing the airport and developing the land is the only real choice that makes sense for the entire Tri-City community. About 35 people attended the Thursday hearing.
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 a firm to do a $225,000 independent review.
Carl Cadwell of Cadwell Laboratories claimed the port could improve the airport for about $5.9 million, not $42.6 million. He said all of the buildings at Vista Field could be built with private money.
He challenged the current annual estimated operating loss of $361,000 for the airport, and claimed it included costs not directly related to operating the airport.
The study says the loss could grow to $640,000 a year.
Cadwell, who said he has more invested in Vista Field than anyone else at the hearing, said he doesn't think the public cost of a redeveloped airport is accurate. He said the cost would be higher than the revenue from the land sales.
Cadwell said he made a $2 million investment in his business near the airfield because the port decided in 2010 to keep the airport open.
Kennewick developer Jose Chavallo said when the port agreed to keep the airport open, pilots and developers promised to put money into the airport.
"Where are they?" he asked. "How many hangars did they build? If they were willing to build, where are they?"
Things change and the community needs to grow, said Chavallo, who owns property near the airport and has built a commercial and medical development nearby.
"We have to look at the future of the Tri-Cities," Chavallo said. He has previously described the land at Vista Field as "a diamond in the rough."
The draft study lays out two options for the 113 acres the Port of Kennewick owns at Vista Field Airport -- keeping it open and investing in improvements or closing it and redeveloping it into a mix of retail, office, industrial and commercial buildings.
Enhancement could add about $17.5 million to the tax rolls, while redevelopment could mean about $408.6 million added, according to the study.
Redevelopment could result in a gain of $3.7 million, after airport closure costs and preparing the land for development.
Local architect Steve Mallory, who lives near Vista Field, said he thinks that if the airport is closed the value of the development would be about one-third of what the study estimated. He said he still supports closing the airport and developing the property.
Several people at the hearing said they'd prefer the airport remain open without all the frills.
Clif Dyer, owner of Sundance Aviation, the fixed-based operator at the Richland Airport, said he thinks the airport needs to remain open, but not in the way the draft study suggests. Vista Field needs to be allowed to slowly and steadily grow with options for private investors to join in with the port.
The most fiscally responsible decision is for the port to close the airfield and ready the land for development, said Kirk Williamson of Kennewick. He asked the port to move forward on the closure.
Bob Ogata of Kennewick said he would like to see the airport redeveloped into a place that offers entertainment and enhances the quality of life for Tri-Citians.
John Givens, a board member with the Kennewick Public Facilities District, said the district would embrace the redevelopment of the airport if that is what the port and voters choose.
A mixed-use development could provide job growth and millions in new property taxes and sales taxes, he said.
But the facilities district would consider the airport neither a detriment nor a benefit if it remains open, as long as it doesn't limit development on the Three Rivers campus, Givens said.
Comments can still be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.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.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com