By Ralph Echtinaw
Gratiot County officials have offered total ownership of Gratiot Community Airport to Alma for $8, but Alma officials are worried about the financial bath the city might take if they accept the deal.
“I feel more clueless now,” said Alma City Commissioner Audra Stahl after an Oct. 11 discussion during a city commission meeting.
“I’m not ready to sign anything over until we all understand this a whole lot better,” said Alma Mayor Greg Mapes.
“This isn’t to be taken lightly,” said City Commissioner Roger Allman. “Either we completely own it and run it and manage it and pay for it, or we lose the airport. That’s a big decision. I don’t think we want to lose the airport, and I don’t know that we can afford to take it over.”
“We all know we need (the airport),” Stahl said. “We have manufacturers that rely on (it).”
Turning a profit
Commissioners are concerned about the city’s ability to make the 53-year-old airport profitable after years of running an average annual deficit of $52,000.
Leasing land to a solar panel company has been kicked around, but City Manager Aeric Ripley said the company that contacted the Airport Authority was looking for 600 acres, and the airport can spare no more than 300.
The Airport Authority already leases land to farmers, but “the most we’ve ever gotten out there is three dollars an acre,” Ripley said. “I don’t see that going up substantially.” Besides, the Federal Aviation Administration has restrictions on crops on airport property, and corn is prohibited.
Hangar rents could be raised, but there are three empty hangars currently with no waiting list, so perhaps the demand is insufficient to withstand a large price increase. “You could get say $20 more per (hangar, but) it’s still not going to get you where you need to be,” Ripley said.
Perhaps the biggest source of potential revenue is an $824,000 fuel farm scheduled to be installed next spring. It will replace the existing tanks that were paid for by Total Refinery years ago.
Federal and state governments will cover most of the cost of the new tanks. The local share is expected to be $23,000.
Currently, fuel is bought and sold by McDonald Air Services, the airport’s fixed base operator. McDonald pays the Airport Authority $4,000/year for that privilege.
Once the new tanks are installed the airport owner (be it the county or Alma) will handle fuel purchase and sales plus maintenance of the equipment. How much that will boost airport revenue is unknown.
However, the Mt. Pleasant airport paid $102,000 for fuel in 2019 that it sold for $179,000. The city of Big Rapids paid $49,000 for fuel in 2019 that it sold for $152,000.
Only one fuel farm bid
Getting a contractor to install the new fuel farm wasn’t easy.
No bids were received before the deadline, so the request for bids was left open for an additional two weeks. After that time, only one bid had been received and it was substantially more than what had been expected for the project, Ripley said. Airport Authority members accepted the bid at a meeting Oct. 13.
Hangar approval tabled
Airport Authority members reviewed a request from Steve Meinhardt, 53, of Crystal, for permission to build a 70×88 foot private hangar. Ripley discouraged authority members from approving the request, citing the likely dissolution of the Airport Authority in the near future as either the county or Alma will take it over.
Hodgepodge of parcels
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).
The county owns eight parcels. Alma owns four.
To be more specific, the county owns 25 percent of the 5,000-foot east/west runway, and Alma owns most of the airport buildings.
Check the map above to see for yourself.
Deal proposed Sept. 30
When the possibility of the county taking over airport administration was initially discussed it was determined that the county should own the whole thing. County commissioners wanted Alma to sell its four parcels to the county for $4. Alma officials balked at that during a Sept. 30 meeting at the airport.
“They wanted us to sell them all our parcels for a dollar (each),” said Alma City Commissioner Michelle Pitts, who was at the Sept. 30 meeting. “And they didn’t think there was anything wrong with selling it for a dollar (each). I do see something wrong with that. And they were ready for us to make (a decision) that day. We would not make it that day.”
Responding to Pitts’ reluctance to sell Alma’s property to the county for $4, County Administrator Tracey Cordes noted that the land can’t be used for anything but the airport. So there’s no reason a substantial amount of money should change hands.
Mapes was also at the Sept. 30 meeting and told his fellow city commissioners he thought the arrangement would be that the county manages the airport with Alma retaining “kind of a partnership in it. Their vision is fairly different than what I had in mind.”
County Finance Director Chris Oosterhoff said running the airport would be problematic if Alma retains ownership of its four parcels. “We would have to get permission from Alma to make adjustments to these buildings,” he said.
“It just makes sense that whoever has responsibility and liability should have the ground, too,” said County Commissioner John Lemmermann.
Faced with Alma’s reluctance to part with its four parcels, County Commissioner Sam Smith proposed letting Alma have the county’s eight airport parcels for $8 in exchange for Alma running the airport (and being financially responsible for it). County commissioners later voted unanimously to back the offer. And that’s where it stands now; with Alma officials thinking it over.
“As far as I’m concerned everything’s on the table,” said Mapes as the Oct. 11 discussion wound down. “I want to be above board with everybody. I don’t have a specific agenda. Everybody on this board is about the same mind. I want everybody to understand what we’re doing. If we’re giving away property, maybe it’s a great thing. I don’t know.”
Mapes and Pitts “seemingly thought that (county officials) have some great idea that (the airport) is going to be some kind of a financial boon to us,” Lemmermann said. “But whatever revenue is created here has to stay here (legally). If there was a giant oil field under the airport, or if we could get a $5 million solar panel deal all that money stays with the airport. There’s no financial gain that either the county or Alma could get from having (control of) the airport.”
“We told them what our plan was,” Smith said. “I don’t know if they thought that was the truth. You guys can have it. We don’t care who runs it. It’s not like we woke up one day and said let’s go get an airport and run this thing.”
New players on the way
All this is complicated by the fact that the composition of the county commission and Alma city commission will be different following the Nov. 8 election. Two county commission seats are sure to change hands as Chairman Chuck Murphy didn’t seek reelection, and Lemmermann was defeated by Dave Owens in the Aug. 2 Republican primary.
In Alma, five of seven city commission seats are on the ballot. Incumbents Nick Piccolo and Audra Stahl are not seeking reelection. Incumbents Pitts, Daniel Wernick and Roxann Harrington are running again.
Challengers are Laurie Harrison, Doug Haney, Ricky Gallop, William Gorton, Gene G. Smith, Andrew Bare and Randy Clark.
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.
The FAA values the airport because its 5,000-foot runway is the longest in mid Michigan after Lansing and Saginaw airports.
If you want to see the daily arrivals and departures from the airport, go to the Flight Aware web site.