By Kristi Pihl, April 17, 2013, Tri-City Herald
Vista Field’s time as an airport is short lived.
Port of Kennewick commissioners decided in a unanimous vote Wednesday that the airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center would benefit the community more if it was closed and the land used for new businesses and housing.
“We want to create a town center that is missing in the Tri-Cities,” said port President Skip Novakovich.
Commissioners spent about two hours hearing testimony from about 25 people and discussing the issue before deciding to close the much-debated general aviation airport. About 70 people attended the meeting.
It has been a bitter battle between airport proponents who say the facility is a transportation asset to the region and those who question the value of a little used airport in the middle of Kennewick.
Commissioners decided to move forward with development plans outlined in a recently finished consultant’s study.
They also approved preparing the land to sell to private developers. A date has not yet been proposed for the airport closure, said Tim Arntzen, the port’s executive director.
Novakovich said the port will plan the development with community input to create a true asset to benefit the community.
The development process could take 20 years, he said.
The airport has had an important role in the community since the 1940s, said port Commissioner Don Barnes. But there has been tremendous changes in the community.
Barnes said he doesn’t see the support in the community for a bond measure for a $42.6 million public investment at Vista Field to improve the airport’s viability.
Closing the airport for redevelopment is the only viable option, he said.
Novakovich said he made the motion to keep the airport open when commissioners made the decision to do so in March 2010. Since then, he said more information has been gleaned and promised private investment on airport improvements has not happened.
“The noncost benefits at Vista Field couldn’t compare to the losses that were clearly shown,” he said.
Carl Cadwell, owner of Cadwell Laboratories, a business near Vista Field, sparred during the meeting with Novakovich, asking for more time to speak after running over the three-minute public comment limit.
Novakovich asked Cadwell, who had previously called himself the person with the most invested in Vista Field, to leave the meeting after Cadwell interrupted port commissioners with comments about the information about the lack of private investments being inaccurate.
Cadwell has invested $2 million in the expansion of his business, but port commissioners say this hasn’t helped with the operating loss of Vista Field.
Novakovich said he can’t in good faith exercise his responsibility to all port residents by being swayed by a “well-structured, well-prepared special minority group.”Redeveloping the airport would open up
75 acres for the potential construction of more than 1 million square feet of retail, commercial, office and industrial buildings, according to the consultant’s report.
There also could be 1,400 condos or apartments on the top stories of mixed-use buildings, according to the report.
The port has the potential to earn $3.7 million after the land is sold and after paying $11.9 million to close the airport and prepare it for development, including adding roads, according to the report.
The port has been struggling to find a way to revitalize the 90-acre airfield after deciding more than three years ago to keep it open in hopes of recruiting more businesses. The consulting firm was hired to do a $225,000 independent review after efforts to find an airport operator and private investors fell through.
Barb Carter of Kennewick told commissioners it comes down to three words: “return on investment.”
Other port projects have a chance for greater return on investment than the airport, she said. That is why the airport should be closed.
The port’s mandate is economic development, said Don Karger of Kennewick. Redeveloping the airport is economically better and will be more beneficial for taxpayers and businesses.
He pointed out that Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce have all supported redevelopment.
Developer Bob Johnson of Richland told commissioners he is in favor of keeping the airport open and trying to make it work. He said in his experience, the land near Vista Field has been a bridesmaid and not a bride.
Heather Duncan of Benton City told commissioners that the airport is an asset that can’t be recreated if it is dismantled. She said she believes development could happen around the airport.
Hollis Morris of Kennewick said the port should have put the $225,000 it spent on the study toward airport improvements.
After learning airport improvements could cost $42.6 million, aviators urged port commissioners to decide on a less expensive airport option.
But Michael Mehaffy, project manager with the consulting firm, told port commissioners that the so-called no-action alternative that follows the 2011 airport master plan is something the consultants cannot recommend because it doesn’t solve any of the fundamental problems that have kept the airport from growing.
Mehaffy said it appears viable alternatives for the airport are limited and most port stakeholders have come to that conclusion.
Vic Epperly, a former Kennewick mayor, told commissioners it was time to close the airport. Keeping it open will only mean a repeat of the last few years, and the port commission again will be faced with the same question about the airport’s future.