At Vista Field, A Crossroads as Draft Report is Released

By Kristi Pihl, January 11, 2013, Tri-City Herald

When it comes down to just the math, closing Kennewick’s Vista Field Airport to make it into a regional downtown makes financial sense.

But the draft report by Port of Kennewick consultant Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. released late Thursday doesn’t judge what is best for the Tri-Cities.

Instead, it lays out two feasible options, including possible costs and benefits, for the small general aviation airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center.

The decision will be left to port commissioners and citizens.

The draft study concludes making Vista Field into an aerotropolis would cost taxpayers $42.6 million and almost double the port’s annual operational loss during the next 20 years.

Turning the land into a downtown Tri-Cities would make $3.7 million for taxpayers and could add $408.6 million to tax rolls.

The port has been struggling to find a way to revitalize the 90-acre airfield after deciding two years ago to keep the airport open in hopes of recruiting more businesses.

After efforts to find an operator for the airport fell through, the port hired Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. for a $225,000 independent review of the small airport.

Vista Field has about 17 aircraft, with up to 5,000 takeoffs and landings a year, said the study. The port loses about $361,000 a year when staff costs and depreciation are included, said the study.

Play to aviation strengths

Whether the airport is torn down or improved and expanded, the study shows it should be more closely tied to the Three Rivers Convention Center and Columbia Center mall.

With an aerotropolis, the port would build a new fixed-based operator building and invest in hangars and other amenities. A loop road would be built around the airport to serve new hangars. Mixed-used businesses would be developed by private companies.

The port would need to spend about $43.5 million on the project, with that cost being offset by almost $1 million in land sales. That would result in about $17.5 million added to the tax rolls by private businesses.

The port’s annual operational loss would increase to about $640,000 including depreciation, according to the study.

Carl Cadwell of Cadwell Laboratories, a frequent user of the airport, said he questions how much the port says it is losing, particularly from depreciation. He said port capital projects in the past seven years do not equal the depreciation costs.

Depreciation is what it will take to repair the buildings and amenities as they age, said Larry Peterson, Port of Kennewick director of planning and development.

In the past, the port has used land sales to cover the cost for airport operations, but its supply of open lots is almost exhausted, Peterson said.

Cadwell said he would have considered moving his company away from the airport if not for a past promise that port commissioners made to keep Vista Field open. After building a $2 million addition to his business, moving isn’t an option any more, he said.

Cadwell said they use the airport to fly medical equipment and people to shows about 50 times a year.

An aerotropolis is an awesome concept that recognizes the vital link airports play into a region’s economy, Cadwell said. An airport acts like a highway in the sky.

Businesses have expressed interest in a development like the one the consultant describes, he said.

But he said use of the airport has declined since it has looked like it was shutting down.

Vista Field would have to attract a larger share of Tri-City pilots to make an aerotropolis plan work, according to the study.

And keeping the airport open will influence what can be built in the surrounding area.

For example, areas close to airports are supposed to be low density with little residential development, according to the study. A hotel like the one that may be built next to the nearby Three Rivers Convention Center is considered housing.

Create regional downtown

The numbers from the study are clear, said Kirk Williamson, a Kennewick resident who asked commissioners to hire an independent consultant to determine the real costs and uses of Vista Field and other options.

“The land is a much greater asset than a place to land airplanes,” Williamson said.

Vista Field is an asset if the land is redeveloped to generate economic development, Williamson said.

Redevelopment would include a walkable, mixed-use district that includes shopping, public areas and other amenities. Some housing is included, such as upper-story apartments.

That would cost the port about $11.9 million, including developing roads for the new downtown, said the study.

Land sales of about $15.6 million would offset those costs, gaining about $3.7 million, said the study.

And about $408.6 million would be added to the tax rolls from private investment, according to the study.

Those figures are conservative, Peterson said.

The redevelopment scenario is something that isn’t out of scale for the Tri-Cities, he said.

Peterson said it’s rare to find 113 acres owned by a single entity next to regional shopping, a coliseum and a convention center.

Williamson said the area could become the regional downtown. Entertainment, retail, professional and medical uses already have clustered around the airport.

“I have wondered why that wasn’t downtown Tri-Cities since I moved here in 1975,” he said.

The Tri-Cities continues to generate interest and investment, Williamson said. The area has a lot of potential, particularly with the wine industry.

Chance to be heard

Port President Skip Novakovich said he hopes the public will take time to look at the study, ask questions and tell the port how they want their money spent.

The commission also wants input on whether there should be an advisory vote by the public or if port commissioners should just make a decision. Commissioners discussed putting an advisory vote on the ballot, but haven’t decided to do so.

Novakovich said he’s impressed with the draft study. He said people on both sides believe the consultant has been fair.

The draft study is available online at www.portofkennewick. org/airport/ and in person at the Port of Kennewick office at 350 Clover Island Drive, Kennewick.

The port is accepting comments until 5 p.m. Feb. 11.

A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Tri-Cities Business & Visitor Center, at 7130 W. Grandridge Boulevard, in Kennewick.

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