Kalispell Airport Debate Reignites Before Citywide Vote

By Beacon Staff

Should Kalispell’s municipal airport upgrade its runway and other infrastructure?

The airstrip and aviation facilities at the south end of town are back at the center of a lengthy debate as Election Day approaches and opposing sides reopen their campaigns to steer the airport’s fate.

At last week’s Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Jim Lynch, the former director of the Montana Department of Transportation, and Chad Graham, an uncontested candidate for the Kalispell City Council, squared off over the merits of improving the airport or leaving it alone.

Lynch, a longtime pilot and former governor candidate, stressed the economic benefit of having a general aviation airport in the community and how the proposed upgrades would simply improve the integrity of the resource, not create an outsized facility for a few users.

“This is an asset. This isn’t a piece of infrastructure to provide a service to a few people. This is an economic asset for your community to generate economic activity here,” Lynch said. “That’s why you make the investment.”

Graham, who spearheaded the effort to add the airport decision to the upcoming ballot, dismissed Lynch’s portrayal of the site as a money magnet and suggested it remain in its current footprint, avoiding the developments recommended by an engineering firm hired to update the facility’s master plan.

“Money has been spent on this airport and the airport has not held its own fiscally. It’s always been in the red,” Graham said, adding, “(Lynch’s presentation) was reaffirming the existence of the airport, not the need to expand. I’m not for dismantling this airport. Any benefit that we have with that airport right now I would say would remain.”

The public debate comes two months before city residents will cast their votes deciding the potential future of the airport, which has been surrounded by contention, animosity and conflict since the inception of the first landing field in the early 1930s.

The saga continues. In an off-year election with several uncontested races for city government, the 84-year-old airport is slated to be the most contentious item on the Nov. 5 ballot. The weighty decision landed on the shoulders of residents after a tug-of-war between the city council and a group of residents opposed to upgrades.

In late 2011, Stelling Engineers completed its 15-month master plan update and recommended the city improve the airport to B-II federal aviation standards, including moving the runway south and lengthening it by 600 feet.

Stelling estimated the total cost at $16.1 million, 90 percent of which would be funded by a federal program that gathers fuel taxes from the aviation industry and dispenses the monies to airport improvement projects across the nation. The remaining funds needed for Kalispell’s upgrades would be eligible for federal reimbursements.

Graham questioned the certainty of those reimbursements and expressed concern over city residents having to foot the eventual bill. Lynch agreed that federal funding is never guaranteed. But once the city of Kalispell and federal government agree to move forward with the improvements, then the reimbursements would in fact be guaranteed, Lynch said.

“Once they agree, funding is guaranteed,” he said, adding, “In order to get federal funding for this project, we’ve got to get off the dime.

Lynch said voting against the upgrades could lead to the airport’s slow closure, in which case taxpayers might have to pay for existing long-term leases that were not fulfilled by the city.

“The City of Kalispell has made long-term commitments to people using that airport,” Lynch said. “If they can no longer fund the airport, if they don’t want to keep it open, they have a responsibility to finalize those commitments.”

Graham said he is not supporting the death of the airport; rather he would like it restructured as an efficient enterprise fund, which is supposed to hold its own financially.

“This airport needs to be able to pay for itself through user fees,” he said. “It needs to be restructured so it can hold its own.”

The city has a cash fund from previous land sales that covers cost overruns at the airport. Last year, according to the city budget, the airport had total revenue of $79,220 and expenditures of $80,172. The city is exploring ways to improve financial efficiency at the airport and has a preliminary draft for privatizing management at the site.

Last year councilors balked at making a decision about upgrading the airport and approved a motion to let residents vote on whether to upgrade. But six weeks later, the council rescinded the motion by a narrow 5-4 vote. Then two weeks later, in July 2012, the council voted 5-4 in support of Stelling’s recommendation. Councilors Kari Gabriel, Jim Atkinson, Randy Kenyon, Jeff Zauner and Wayne Saverud voted in support of the resolution while Mayor Tammi Fisher and councilors Tim Kluesner, Phil Guiffrida III and Bob Hafferman were opposed.

In the months following the council’s decision, more than 1,800 signatures were gathered, successfully meeting the requirement for a referendum and putting the final say in the hands of voters.

For more information about the city airport and the master plan update, visit www.kalispell.com/airport.

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