Looming election, suspicions delay resolution of airport ownership issue

By Ralph Echtinaw

The upcoming election and suspicions between county and Alma officials are causing a delay in determining who controls Gratiot Community Airport.

Losing money for years, the airport has been run by a group of local governments under the aegis of the Airport Authority (Alma, Pine River Township, Arcada Township and the county jointly) since 2012. The townships stopped contributing money to the airport authority recently, and county officials sought this year to create a new ownership arrangement that could run the airport more efficiently.

The airport loses $52,000 a year on average, but officials believe better management can bring in enough additional revenue to require just $20,000 a year to subsidize operations.

While the original plan was for the county to take over sole ownership (and responsibility for) the airport, a snag developed because the 800-acre airport is a hodgepodge of  individual parcels. Four of them are owned by Alma and eight by the county. The rest are owned collectively by the Airport Authority.

At first, county officials asked Alma officials to sell the city’s four parcels to the county for $1 each. 

“It just makes sense that whoever has responsibility and liability should have the ground, too,” said County Commissioner John Lemmermann.

That was unacceptable to Alma Mayor Greg Mapes and City Commissioner Michelle Pitts, who attended a Sept. 30 meeting with county officials.

County Commissioner Sam Smith proposed turning the tables. What if the county sells its eight airport parcels to the city for $1 each and Alma runs the airport?

Mapes and Pitts were reportedly intrigued by that possibility but said research must be done before an answer can be given.

Lemmermann predicted that Alma will duplicate research the Airport Authority already did. “They’re going to go down the rabbit hole of basically what our airport committee did of investigating everything trying to find out costs,” he said.

And that’s where we stand now. Alma officials consider the offer and wonder if county officials are telling them everything. 

Oh, and five of the seven Alma city commissioner seats are on the Nov. 8 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. (All candidates are invited to contact the Sentinel if they’d like to weigh in on this issue.)

Pitts objects

Alma city commissioners discussed the airport situation at their Oct. 11 meeting.

“They wanted us to sell them all our parcels for a dollar (each),” said 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.”

“As far as I’m concerned everything’s on the table,” said Mapes. “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.”

Commissioner Stahl suggested that someone should read past meeting minutes of the county commission to see if there’s a clue of what that body’s true intention is.

Rabbits and gold

County commissioners discussed the airport situation at their Oct. 18 meeting.

“(City officials) seem to think we have some rabbit that we’re going to pull out of our hat to make the airport work,” Lemmermann said.

“(Alma officials) can’t make a decision,” Smith said. “They really believe that we’ve struck gold there. They just believe that we’ve got some plan that (the airport) is going to be Las Vegas or something tomorrow.”

Lemmermann said that Ithaca City Manager Jamey Conn joked that “they were going to lock (Alma City Manager Aeric Ripley) and I in a room on Thanksgiving, and no turkey, no football until we deal.”

“I think you’re locking the wrong guy,” Smith replied. “You’ve got to grab the mayor (Mapes). Aeric can see the trees, and he sees the forest. Alma just sees the trees.”

Though Lemmermann and Smith have rode point on the airport over the last year, Lemmermann was defeated in the Aug. 2 primary by Dave Owens and has just four meetings left in his county commission career. Commission Chairman Chuck Murphy didn’t seek re-election, so there will be at least two new county commissioners come January.

“I don’t think anything’s going to happen fast,” Smith said. “I think they’re going to need to see the election and see who the new people are and decide from there.”

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