Officials focus on Vista Field's future

Vista Field is open for business and officials are taking steps to secure its future.

A new flight training school is scheduled to set up shop soon at the small Kennewick airport. The new business also will provide aircraft maintenance operations and serve as a dealer for Jabiru and Challenger aircraft lines. It also hopes to one day serve as the airport's fixed-base operator, providing ground support, such as fuel and parts, for aircraft using the airport.

The Port of Kennewick last week created a community advisory board to guide the port as it develops a new master plan for Vista Field.

Port commissioners voted unanimously in March to keep the airport open and develop it as a community asset.

For years, the long-term future of Vista Field remained uncertain because of zoning restrictions in the area, and the desire of many Kennewick leaders to shut down the airport and use the land for commercial, office and retail developments.

Drawing up plans for future development at Vista Field in partnership with other public agencies is a step in the right direction and will help set priorities for the future, said Kennewick city Councilman Don Britain, who also is on the advisory board.

Britain envisions more activity at the airport with construction of more hangars and more planes coming to Vista Field that eventually will fuel the growth of airport-related businesses in the vicinity.

One day people will be able to fly in, shop, dine and comfortably walk around to enjoy what the area has to offer, Britain said.

The outlook for Vista Field appears to be brighter than it has been for a long time, said Marjy Leggett, a pilot and volunteer with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Airport Support Network. "I'm excited," she said of the new developments at Vista, including the start of Jackson Flight Center.

"Jackson is a very reputable business." This may be the catalyst Vista Field needs to attract other business to the area and to show it's a vibrant airport, Leggett said. The pilots would like to see a restaurant or a place where the community can go to watch planes, she said.

The defeat during the fall election of several Kennewick city council members who championed the airport closure and the port's recent vote on Vista made it easier for Jackson Flight Center in Moses Lake to think about expanding business in Kennewick. The company, which has been in business for 10 years, also set up bases in Prosser in 2008 and in Colfax last year.

The expansion worked out well, encouraging the company to look at Vista Field, said Darrin Jackson, a partner at Jackson Flight Center along with his father Daryl. "We were drawing a lot of students from the Tri-Cities," he said.

In Kennewick, the business will occupy a 4,500-square-foot building the port owns on the southeast side of Vista Field on West Deschutes Avenue and provide a number of aviation-related services, he said.

The school will train flying enthusiasts for a variety of aircraft from light sport to commercial, Jackson said. His company also plans to install a $100,000 flight simulator at Vista Field. The investment is to show that Jackson is serious about staying at Vista Field, he said.

Jackson will have technicians to repair aircraft, and to provide assistance to customers who want to build their kit airplanes. Challenger and Jabiru lines -- to be sold by Jackson -- are kit aircraft.

Ideally, JFC would like to be the fixed-base operator at the airport taking care of flyers, providing aircraft tie-down and fueling services, he said. The port has retained control of fuel sales at the airport.

Vista Field's last FBO, Tuttle Aviation, terminated its lease in 2008, fearing imminent closure of the airport.

The arrangement with Jackson is interim, said Dan Cryer, the port's director of operations/airport manager. The port will discuss an FBO once the master plan identifies the future planned development needs at the site, he said. "The port recognizes it's very hard to find an experienced FBO."

In April, the port commissioned a study to see if the existing FBO facility is usable or whether the port needs to identify other spots at Vista Field to build a new FBO facility to handle future growth. The study provided four options, but recommended the port go through a master planning process before making a decision.

The master plan, which should be completed by JUB Engineers in the next three to four months, is being paid for by a grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

"Whatever we do on this master plan, we want everyone to be on the same page," Cryer said. The advisory committee includes representatives, among others, from the Kennewick Public Facilities District, Tri-City Development Council, Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau and Benton-Franklin Council of Governments.

"The other key issue is where we want the boundaries (of the airport) to be," Cryer said. The port would like to use some of its land near the airport for future commercial development, he said. The plan also would establish design standards for buildings.

The port is working with the city of Kennewick to remove zoning restrictions that hinder airport-related development at Vista Field, Cryer said.

The port is doing the right thing for the future of Vista Field, Leggett said. "You don't rush into this. We want a quality airport."

The master plan would give the port a laundry list of things to do at Vista, said Mark Kushner, transportation director of Benton-Franklin Council of Governments. Then the port can go after the money to make it happen, he said.

"Let us move deliberately, carefully. Vista Field has suffered from a lack of planning and commitment in the past," said pilot and airport supporter Scott Musser, who also is on the port's advisory committee.

The master plan needs to look at the development possibilities at the airport, Musser said. But the committee and the port must remember nothing is going to happen overnight, particularly during the recession, and plan accordingly, he said.