By Ralph Echtinaw
The city of Alma may gain sole ownership of Gratiot Community Airport next year following a surprise reversal at a meeting between county and city officials Friday, Sept. 30.
In July it looked like the county would assume sole responsibility for the financially-troubled airport, but a snag developed when Alma officials wouldn’t agree to sell the four parcels of airport property the city owns to the county for $1 each..
The 800-acre airport is a hodgepodge of parcels that are owned either by the county, Alma or the airport authority (comprising Alma, Pine River Township, Arcada Township and the county jointly).
For example, the county owns 25 percent of the 5,000-foot east/west runway, and Alma owns most of the airport buildings.
Whoever becomes the airport administrator (be it Alma or the county) needs to own all the property. (Or wants to at least.) Alma Mayor Greg Mapes, et.al. wouldn’t agree at the Sept. 30 meeting to sell Alma’s pieces to the county, so County Commissioner Sam Smith proposed turning the tables. In that scenario the county would sell its eight pieces of the airport to Alma for $1 each. Alma would then have sole ownership of the airport and be responsible for its expenses.
“They were very receptive to that,” said County Administrator Tracey Cordes. “I think they were favoring that idea. We were a little surprised when the mayor said ‘Sure.’ We will help the city however we can in that transition.”
Not a done deal
“The mayor walked away indicating that he would talk it over with constituents and his commission,” Cordes said.
“(Mayor Mapes) said it’s going to take us months to figure it out,” said County Commissioner John Lemmermann. “We’re not going to know until after the first of the year.”
Commissioner Smith added: “They didn’t know if they could even talk about it by the end of the year.”
With the idea of reassuring Mapes and company that the county commission is serious about this offer, Commissioner Lemmermann brought the topic up at the Oct. 4 county commission meeting. Commissioners voted unanimously in support of the plan where the county gets $8 for its airport land, and Alma gets control of the airport. The county would no longer be on the hook for a $26,000 annual contribution to the airport.
“If Alma thinks they can do a better job, more power to them,” said Commissioner George Bailey. “The person operating the airport must have total control over the buildings and the land. One person said it’s just like giving them lunch money (to sell the parcels for $1 each). Well it’s not, because the only thing that land is good for is the airport. We’re trying to rectify a bad situation. We want to make sure we have a viable airport for economic development in this county.”
The airport has been financially troubled for several years. The county and Alma kick in $26,000 annually for the airport. But the airport still runs an average annual deficit of $52,000.
The money to cover that deficit comes from the airport authority savings account, which contains $382,000. That fund is also needed for local matches when the federal government pays the lion’s share of improvements. For example, an $800,000 fuel farm is scheduled to be installed next year. The local match will be $23,000.
Paying its own way
Whoever takes over airport administration will try to find a way to make the airport pay for itself.
Cordes has some ideas about that: “We would be looking at efficiencies,” she said. “Is there a way fuel could be sold more efficiently so there would be greater revenue from fuel sales? We would need to look at maintenance situations. We would need to look at contracts for various services. We would want to (see) if the rates being charged for everything are competitive. We would want to talk to pilots about how could this facility be made more appealing and be made more useful to them.”
More specifically, Cordes said having a mechanic at the airport would be a major improvement for pilots. “As it is when pilots show up and there’s a mechanical issue they have to call around and find one and get that individual here. Perhaps we could make that more accessible and easier.”
Other improvements mentioned were a car service, a charter flight service, a kitchen, food delivery, a lounge, a computer room and sleeping accommodations.
Mead & Hunt study
Two years ago the county commissioned an airport study by Mead & Hunt. “While there is nothing inherently wrong with the way the airport is currently managed, there are opportunities for improvement,” the study said.
Organizationally, however, it’s a mess.
“(The county was) in possession of very little background data other than a copy of the authority agreement and a brief financial review from the county finance director,” the study said. “The City of Alma provided numerous documents, and the Fixed Base Operator also supplied information. In each case, different information was provided from each source, and there did not appear to be an ability for any single person to have been in possession of all the data.
“Having this many individuals involved at the airport complicates the operation and erodes the efficiency of communication and coordination as well as interaction with the local community.”
The study recommends that “At a minimum, the airport authority could create a more formal reporting structure so at least documents that are important to the operations of the airport are maintained by a single person and found in a single location.”
Although the Sentinel reached out to Alma officials (through City Manager Aeric Ripley), none of them have so far responded with comments.
An airport authority meeting is scheduled for noon Thursday, Oct. 13, at Alma city hall. The general public is welcome to attend.
Land was purchased for the airport in 1965-66, and the airport opened in 1969 with Alma as the sole sponsor until 1981 when Gratiot County became a co-owner of the airport with the creation of the Gratiot Community Airport Commission. That arrangement changed in 2009 when the Gratiot County Airport Authority was formed and subsequently amended in 2012. With the 2012 amendment, the ownership was shared by Gratiot County, Alma, Ithaca, St. Louis, Arcada Township and Pine River Township. (The townships stopped making financial contributions to the airport authority in the last couple years.)
There are 37 airplanes based at airport, and three hangars are vacant. About 70 business jets use the airport annually, including Meijer executives making store inspections in Alma.
If you want to see the daily arrivals and departures from the airport, go to the Flight Aware web site.
Millage levy off the table
One solution the Mead & Hunt study suggested is establishing a countywide millage to support the airport. One tenth of a mill would generate upwards of $150,000 annually, which would fully fund the airport and then some. But Cordes said “this board does not intend to fund airport operations through a millage.”
Closing the airport is not an option, as the Federal Aviation Administration would want the money it spent on airport improvements over the years to be reimbursed, Lemmermann said.
The FAA values the airport because its 5,000-foot runway is the longest in mid Michigan after Lansing and Saginaw airports.