The Pilot's Lounge #63:
It Takes A Village To Raise An Airport

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AVweb's Rick Durden has gotten used to stories about airports losing money, support, and pilots. So when he heard about a place where the airport was increasing the support from the citizens, he had to find out more.

The Pilot's Lounge

Over the last few years the news we hear in the Pilot's Lounge, here at the virtual airport, has tended to be pretty grim. With Chicago's Mayor Terrorist destroying Meigs, TFRs and airspace restrictions as rampant as mushrooms in a damp cellar and airline managers doing their level best to bankrupt their charges while competing amongst themselves for the lowest quality of service, it's enough to send a Christian Scientist reaching for the Prozac.

As I was in the midst of listening with half an ear to yet another session on the high cost of flying and frustrations over attacks on little airports, one of the more thoughtful of the regular visitors to the Lounge, Western Michigan University Professor Lisa Whittaker, wandered in and told me about some folks who are successfully revitalizing their city's airport. She had recently been to a community meeting where she had given a presentation to area businesses on the economic benefits provided to each of them by the city's airport. Professor Whittaker made the astonishing assertion that in this community, the City Council had discovered that the airport was actually a positive thing for the community and was working with local pilots to apply for grants to upgrade the airport. Given my mood and the overall glum state of aviation, I figured she'd been experimenting with some of the stuff the undergrads were using or this was a nasty practical joke.

Professor Whittaker was adamant that there was a place on this planet where the pilots were working together effectively to improve their local airport. After a suitable interval to make sure she wasn't pulling my leg as a result of my column on user-friendly airports, I agreed to meet Vickie and Ted Heckman, who along with other pilots were working with the City Council of Allegan, Mich., and over the last couple of years were turning an airport that had been at risk of being sold off into a recognized, expanding community asset.

Vickie and Ted Heckman own a Meyers OTW, a World War II biplane that was used as a trainer by the Army Air Force and had the enviable reputation of never being involved in a fatal training accident. As a result of accepting the challenge of keeping a radial engine and a steel tube, wood and fabric airplane alive they have spent a great deal of time in their hangar at the Allegan Airport dealing with the needs of a 60-year-old flying machine. They were fortunate to have gotten a hangar, even though it was politely described as a fixer-upper, for there are but 14 hangars at Allegan Airport, a waiting list of 37 people for hangars and the city had done nothing to maintain the hangars over the years. Time and gravity were taking their tolls, with two hangars having been condemned as unsafe for occupancy.

Airport Manager Dan Dodgen, who also runs the one FBO and flight school on the field, had been doing what he could to get improvements made to the airport, but he wasn't a native and didn't know the local power structure. About two years ago, Dodgen learned that the Allegan City Council (which is responsible for the airport) was considering selling the airport to the local community college for one dollar. Dan approached Vickie and Ted, told them the airport was at risk of being sold off and plowed up, asked if they knew any of the City Council members or the Mayor, and, if so, would they be willing to talk with them about the airport. They did and they would.

Vickie Heckman will never be described as shy and retiring, so she took the lead. Having known the Mayor and a few of the City Council members for years, some since school days, she began talking to them about the city airport as an asset. It turned out that, as with all city councils, the members were constantly bombarded with urgent problems to solve and they simply did not know much about the local airport nor did they have the luxury of the time in which to spend looking into it. To many of them, the airport was just a very large chunk of city land where the "rich folks" kept their toys and that wasn't earning much revenue for the city. Vickie discovered that the Council members did not know that the airport had a busy flight school, they did not they know that local businesses regularly made use of the airport in getting customers, suppliers and vendors to Allegan for meetings that were critical to sales efforts and they did not realize that not only were hangars a source of revenue, but that they attracted tenants, both individual and business, and that there was pent-up demand for hangars, particularly for corporate aircraft.

A number of things occurred, not simultaneously, but close to it. Vicki Heckman and a representative from the Michigan Department of Transportation spoke with the City Council at a special meeting that took place one hour prior to the normal start of its biweekly meeting and which carefully complied with the state's open meetings law. They made a presentation showing the airport as a community asset and explained that money was available from a number of sources to upgrade the airport. The Council was not aware of the extent to which federal, state and other funds were available to support local airports, something that got the members' attention. The Heckmans and other local pilots worked with Dan and Colleen Dodgen to establish an association of area pilots who were committed to improving their airport. Research was conducted into the history of the airport. They found that the land for the airport had originally been donated to the city by Judge Padgham (for whom the field is named) in the mid-1930s. Over the years, the FAA had provided nearly $400,000 in grant money to the airport and had put a convenient string on the money: If the airport were ever sold at a profit, all of the grant money would have to be repaid to the FAA. A sale of the airport for one dollar would be a sale for a profit and the city stood to lose close to $400,000 if it sold the airport. When that information was brought to light, it's amazing how fast it attracted the attention of those who have the responsibility for the purse strings.

The City Council responded to the information provided to it by establishing an Airport Advisory Board made up of six voting members, of which five were local pilots and one a city council member. It is moderated by the assistant city manager, who does not have a vote. The Advisory Board continues to meet monthly to carry out its charge of making recommendations as to policy for administering the airport, its budget, improvements and grants. The Board reports to the City Council at every Council meeting. The Advisory Board does not have the power to compel the Council to take action, but its members have found that by establishing a reputation for having significant expertise and being able to answer the Council's technical questions, the recommendations the Board makes tend to be followed by the Council.

A Well-Spoken, Non-Confrontational Presentation

In looking back, the fact that a presentation was made to the City Council about the airport by a well-spoken person the Council members knew and trusted made all the difference in the world. Vickie Heckman was not an outsider, she was not confrontational, but rather was someone who came to the Council members to give straightforward information about the airport. She spoke as a local citizen on a matter of concern to her community and she brought in a knowledgeable person from the state level who could add emphasis to her presentation. As a result of discussions with area pilots and the Dodgens, the basic message to the City Council was determined and presented in a positive fashion: The airport was a community asset and not just a place for rich people's toys; selling it could be a financial minefield; and making modest upgrades would add to its value to the community and improve revenue. A subtle portion of the presentation was that communities that lose their airports tend to wither away because they are unable to attract and retain businesses. Businesses put a time value on people and equipment and need to move both rapidly. They have to have an airport nearby to do so.

One of the first things that the Advisory Board was able to accomplish was to obtain approval for construction of additional hangars, including two corporate hangars. Once built, they are expected to pay for themselves in two years. Everyone benefits, revenue goes up, users have hangars and local businesses can keep their airplanes locally instead of having to drive an hour or so to the Grand Rapids airport. Another major accomplishment for the Advisory Board was to get the City Council to agree that revenues generated by the airport go into the airport fund and not into the City's general fund, never to be seen again.

The Allegan Area Pilots Association has proven to be an important adjunct to the Advisory Board. As the Advisory Board has explained to the City Council, one of the purposes of a community airport is recreation for the community. The Pilots Association helps make some of that happen. It has provided the labor for a number of projects and works to coordinate the annual fly-in and auto show at the airport (they know they get more visitors if the fly-in is tied in with another attraction and they get to expose the benefits of the aviation to people who might not otherwise ever go to the airport). Some years ago a gazebo and a barbeque were put up on an attractive portion of the airport. It is a pleasant place for those who like to visit and watch airplanes. The Pilots Association keeps it up. On one side of the airport the City has installed a walking path. The Pilots Association is providing the labor to install an observation area where people can sit and watch airplanes. They are working to make the airport not only known within the community but known as a friendly place. They recognize that one of the reasons some people dislike airports is that airports can be insular, remote, unfriendly places populated by people who keep to themselves and do not welcome strangers. They know that throughout history peoples who set themselves apart, for any reason, unwittingly invited suspicions about themselves and their activities and eventual persecution from the majority population. The Pilots Association is doing its best to make the airport a part of the community.

The office for the FBO is in space rented from the City. It hasn't been remodeled in at least 25 years. It shows its age. The Pilots Association will be supplying the labor to remodel the office and is raising money for the materials. A grant application has been made for funds for the materials to create an airlock entrance to the office. It will allow persons flying in after hours to get out of the weather and have access to a telephone and information on local contacts, while keeping the office itself locked. A number of airports around the country have such an entrance area, and it has helped more than a few pilots and passengers who diverted to due to weather or mechanical problems. In recognizing the need to make the airport friendly toward those who fly in, the Pilots Association reached out to local businesses so that a bed and breakfast and some restaurants will provide free transportation between their establishments and the airport.

Grant Applications

There is little fencing around the airport and Allegan has a problem with kids skateboarding on the runway. The Advisory Board is working with a very supportive City Manager and Assistant City Manager to write a grant proposal to the homeland security folks in Washington, D.C., for money for fencing.

Making Use of Available Resources

The Pilots Association and Airport Advisory Board are not hesitant to make use of assets that they believe will help them support the airport. They regularly contact AOPA and take advantage of it programs. They also work closely with the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is a good source of information on airport matters and assistance in obtaining federal and state moneys available to airports.

Allegan pilots reached out to philanthropic and service organizations that are involved in community improvement, such as the Lions Club and Rotary. Such organizations tend to be made up of people in the community who get things done. Educating those folks on the value of the airport is a natural and can lead to a number of positive results. When the Pilots Association put on a fly-in at the airport, the Lions Club handled the pancake breakfast, and the Children's Historical Museum group put together the lunch, thus introducing a significant number of "non-aviation" people to the airport and what it offers.

Educational Programs

In May of this year, the Airport Advisory Board and Pilots Association put on one of the more creative events I've heard about in a long time: They organized a program to show the businesses in the city the economic advantages of the connection between aviation and business. It was held at the County Area Technical and Educational Center, which had the necessary equipment for sophisticated video and audio presentations. Those business people who attended heard a presentation by Professor Whittaker on the range of economic advantages to businesses of having a local airport. Amanda Hopper, of the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, gave additional information on aviation and business from the perspective of a state agency that was aware that airports were vital to community health. The Pilot's Association had representatives available to answer questions. Dan Dodgen discussed local airport plans as well as what was involved in obtaining a pilot certificate and how it can help one's business. They all explained things that are obvious to pilots but somehow escape laypeople, such as point-to-point distances for many of the trips people make regularly, with a comparison of times and costs involved in different methods of transportation, and how much it costs to drive when the driver's hourly cost to the company is factored into the economic equation. As a nice little add-on, each attendee received a VIP pass to the upcoming fly-in and car show at the airport. Those who completed a survey were entered into a drawing and four people get passes for a free scenic flight over the area.

The Advisory Board was pleased with its initial program and learned that some of the business people who stayed away thought that they were going to be asked for money. Word of mouth feedback from those who attended has lead to a decision to hold another program, but to expand it to businesses throughout the county.

When I met with Professor Whittaker and the Heckmans I was given a copy of the small brochure that was used to promote the program. It was extremely well-written and presented. I looked at it and thought sadly about the many poorly prepared, tacky flyers I had seen in the past and how the quality of the materials announcing an aviation event often has a huge influence on whether recipients (who are bombarded by junk mail and spam daily) will bother to read and act on the flyers or just throw them away. The one announcing Allegan Airport's business and aviation connection was first-class and set a tone that said the organizers knew what they were doing and would put on a professional program.

A Say In the Master Plan

As a part of the various state and federal requirements to obtain airport grants, Allegan airport has a 5- and 10-year master plan. The Advisory Board has been tasked to update the plans and provide proposed updates to the City Council for approval. The effect is that the users of the airport will have a say in how the master plans are developed, something that makes eminent sense, but rarely happens as such plans are usually put together by politicians who may or may not understand what they are doing.

The Future

In looking to the future, the Advisory Board is aware that individuals and companies in the area are looking for alternatives to airline transportation for business and pleasure travel. Just to get to the recreation areas in the northern part of the state either involves a four- to eight-hour drive, or a drive to Grand Rapids, arriving early enough for airline check-in and security clearance, and then a connection through Detroit, Chicago or Minneapolis, turning airline travel time into an event longer than a drive. The Advisory Board and Pilots Association want to attract a Part 135 charter operator on the field, and have been pitching ease and speed of travel by general aviation aircraft to the community. They do notice that nearby charter operators are picking up revenue passengers as well as freight at Allegan. (The Advisory Board also makes practice of reporting on the number of revenue flights and corporate flights at the airport as a part of its biweekly report to the City Council.) The Advisory Board believes that the demand for travel to and from smaller airports -- and NASA's SATS (Small Aircraft Transportation System) program -- will mean that smaller airports are going to grow significantly in importance in the national transportation system. It is likely that the cost of travel using aircraft such as the proposed Eclipse light jet will decrease significantly, to the point that it will become affordable for more of those consumers who understand and want such transportation but can't currently afford it.

In talking with Vickie and Ted Heckman and Professor Whittaker, I came away with a much more positive point of view than I've had in weeks. Pilots can act locally to improve their airports, but the manner in which they do so may have a huge impact on their degree of success. As our conversation was winding down we found that we were all in agreement on a major factor: The pilots must understand the local power structure and know how to work within it to get the results they want. Knowing the people who hold office is a big asset; being elected to office oneself is even bigger. I agreed with the observation made by the Heckmans and Professor Whittaker; a pilot who shows up at an airport commission or City Council meeting and "tells" the governing body what must be done will not be successful and may cause a significant backlash against the very ends he seeks. It takes time to gain the respect of the governing body, but one method of doing so is to be an accurate source of technical information that is presented in a manner that is easily understood, with minimal jargon. It was nice to see evidence that such techniques do work.

See you next month.