City to take over airport operations

Chad Drury, Ottumwa Courier, Iowa
·6 min read

Mar. 3—OTTUMWA — After a split vote, the City of Ottumwa is taking over operations at the Ottumwa Regional Airport.

The city council voted 3-2 during Tuesday's meeting to refuse two requests for proposals, one of which — from Sociable Air Inc. — was endorsed by the airport board. Instead, the city will provide services to the airport, which has been without a fixed-based-operator since Feb. 28, when the contract with Archangel Services LLC expired. Currently, there is a self-service aspect to the airport.

City administrator Phil Rath said the costs for a contract with a private company wouldn't benefit the city over the long run. Sociable Air's proposal of $63,850 per year had been lower than previous RFPs offered to the city, but Rath determined the city could take in more revenue over a five-year period if it ran the airport itself and absorbed it "into the structure of the city."

Steven Palen, an Ottumwa resident who led Sociable Air's RFP, disagreed, as did resident Joe Wilson.

"I believe the ultimate goal for all of us is to better the airport. The question is the path we take to get there," said Palen, who professed his 'hidden passion' for aviation. "We had a list of 100 promotions that we wanted to do with the airport so it's just not another flyover airport, and any pilot can tell you the difference between a privately owned FBO and a government-run one."

"It's a service-industry job. It's not a Casey's store we're opening," Wilson said. "This is the first place anyone of money or power would come to and all their needs need to be granted. This will be the first time the city runs this in the last 40 years or so. I don't know that the city sat down with Archangel about lists, phone numbers, and clientele, but it'd be a shame if we lost that."

A fixed-based operator essentially makes flying into the city an attractive option by maintaining a clean airport, taking care of fuel and other maintenance services, flight instruction, offering courtesy cars, and providing catering to anyone who flies to the facility. The airport is not supported by property taxes.

Rath noted that the expenses to the city would be more over time than a contracted service because the city would have to hire staff, additional costs for supplies, etc. As far as revenues, he anticipated a benefit to the city of over $200,000 more than a contracted FBO based on hangar rentals, fuel prices, maintenance, etc. He believed the city could partner with Indian Hills Community College to oversee and develop a maintenance program, establish some early revenue and build on that.

Rath mentioned hiring airport board member Duke Ball, who would have a good rapport with pilots at the airport.

"Having a trusted place to get maintenance done is as important as fuel price," he said. "The reputation of Duke, from what I understand, is well-respected. The pilots out there will have that good customer service."

In the long run, Rath said a contracted FBO would lose about $130,000 per year through 2026, but hoped the city's cash balance could stay in the black over the same time frame.

"I've worked with other municipal airports before trying to raise a levy for airports, and it's a very tall order when you try to go to the public and ask for financial support to offset the operations of the airport," he said. "I personally see an airport as an economic development driver and an engine for the city. Sometimes they get a negative rub as a place for 'boys with toys,' and it gets very hard to get any revenue taxes to offset that.

"One of my biggest fears long term is you get a couple years in, we may be at a point where the city can't maintain an FBO at all," Rath said. "If that happens, it really decreases the amount of services. But we have several services that run 24/7. If you have the right mentality and hire the right people, you'll get the desired results no matter if it's private or public. This way, we'll be able to leverage the city resources."

Still, council members were skeptical, expressing concern the city's plan was incomplete.

"Economic development is something we talk about a lot, but that gives me pause for concern because the city offers a lot, and my concern is that we'll drop some of that by running the airport," said council member Holly Berg, who voted against the city's operations along with Bob Meyers. "How would the city invest in marketing? So, I have concerns about operating an airport without having people who are experts in that field."

Council member Matt Dalbey said he'd rather see it in private hands, but acknowledged the financials of the city enter into the equation.

"I think we're way too early in the game to think about where it's going to go. I don't think there's a real appetite for another levy," he said. "It's not perfect and sometimes you're hands are tied. But we have to do what makes best financial sense for the city, and hopefully we leave those (private) options open, and I know we have interested parties."

Council member Marc Roe wanted to know what the plan was for sustainability for the airport under city control and was hesitant to vote for a plan "where the entire package wasn't in front of us."

"It seems this makes sense financially for the taxpayer. My concern is voting for half of a plan," he said. "What's the plan for that one catastrophic event? We always have the best-laid plans for what the future looks like, but if the airport is one of the economic drivers for us, we have to be able to market it appropriately. I don't want to be back here in three years making this decision all over again."

Rath stressed the customer service aspect and ability to offer maintenance services quickly, then growing from there and expanding the breadth of pilots over the long haul.

"When we went into the process last summer, there were questions about the ability of the current services with Archangel," he said. "The airport board met and wanted more services. So we tried to put out an RFP. The price was pretty astounding. We re-issued, and tried to loosen it a bit to get estimates for services and there were things to be negotiated, but that's not the direction we were getting from the airport board.

"The city proposal is looking to provide some of those things almost immediately, and I think that is going to speak for itself."

In other business the council:

—During a public hearing, unanimously approved a renewal of a five-year lease agreement with Musco Lighting for a hangar at the airport. A rental fee and fuel pricing rate will be negotiated between the city and the company at a later date. Rath said there could be a tiered structure for the prices of fuel based on the number of gallons.

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury