Businesses want more say at Aurora Airport
Airport businesses, along with the Oregon Aviation Board, agreed to take steps to more closely collaborate in managing the Aurora State Airport during a board meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 6.
More than half of the land at the airport is privately owned while the state owns the rest. Some landowners have felt that the Oregon Department of Aviation hasn't consulted them enough in planning the airport — which department Director Betty Stansbury said is the fourth busiest airport in Oregon in terms of aircraft operations.
Landowners want more say, as well as for the agency and board to devote more resources to the property. They also feel that more close collaboration could better prepare the local area for a large seismic event such as the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
Despite this plea, airport business interests have already joined the state in contesting litigation filed by the city of Wilsonville and others over planning at the airport. These businesses have many representatives at the table as part of the new master planning process. Business leaders want the airport runway to be extended by 1,000 feet, which the city opposes.
"By engaging with us and having us be at the table actively and partner in the decision-making about the airport, I think the ODA and the state as a whole would have a larger benefit and a far better prepared airport than the state could do on their own," said Tony Helbling of Wilson Construction.
At the meeting, Helbling said that while Port of Portland has hundreds of staffers to manage Portland, Troutdale and Hillsboro airports, there are only about a dozen staffers tasked with managing all of the state-owned airports including Aurora. Considering the high volume of traffic and business the airport generates, he felt that the airport should have more employees and resources devoted to it. Whereas many hundreds of business workers operate out of Aurora, there are very few at other state-owned airports.
"We're closer to a PDX or Eugene or K-Falls (Klamath Falls) than a Condon or Pacific City, which is typically what ODA manages," Helbling said.
He later added: "The volume of time ODA spends on 27 airports as contrasted to our airport I think is out of balance, especially with what we bring with respect to revenue to ODA or tax revenue to the state of Oregon because of the development at the airport."
Board Chair Martha Meeker agreed that there should be more boots on the ground at the airport and more of an assessment of the businesses that work there, of its existing infrastructure and the services it offers to the local community.
Meeker also brought up the idea of the state ceding management of the airport to a self-sustaining district. She added that it could take a decade for that to come to fruition and it would be up to local property owners to organize what would be an extensive process — including garnering approval from Marion County. Board member John Barsalou also liked that concept.
"We're not going to do that anytime soon. That's a lot of work. I don't know if the airport is ready for it," Meeker said in an interview after the meeting.
Although the state previously devoted one employee to managing the airport, Meeker said it currently doesn't have the money to hire that kind of position or bolster staffing. Aurora Aviation owner Bruce Bennett said the previous arrangement didn't work as well as it could have, and that communication would need to be improved.
Helbling envisioned the airport businesses as having a consultative role.
"We can't decide how much taxpayer money will be spent on the runway. That's not our decision. But to be able to have that voice to share the information as a partner with the decision-makers who will make the decision, that's what we're asking for," he said.
Aurora is one of 12 airports owned by the state that could serve as a staging area in case of a natural disaster. It also may not be hit as hard by a Cascadia earthquake as some other airports in the region, according to ODA Director Betty Stansbury — who said liquefaction damage at the airport would be minimal.
"That airport certainly has a lot of potential for surviving the event and serving as staging (area) somewhat for the government response, but more so for civilian response," she said.
In collaboration with the airport businesses, the state wants to assess what Aurora's capacity would be in that event and the equipment, like generators and fuel storage, needed to make it even more useful. The airport has at least a handful of businesses that assist with emergency response — such as Life Flight Network, Columbia Helicopters and Helicopter Transport Services. Helbling added that two businesses work to restore power lines.
Meeker suggested that this assessment could be used to attract state funding.
"If we could take that to the Legislature and show what Aurora is offering, maybe we could get their attention for continual funding to help us make our own luck should the Cascadia event happen," she said.
The state and airport business owners are planning to meet again in the coming weeks to further discuss closer collaboration.
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