Kalispell Airport Decision Delayed After Users Propose Financial Support

City staff to meet with pilots, leaseholders to discuss possible agreement to keep airfield open

By Dillon Tabish
File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

Faced with the potential closure of the Kalispell City Airport, a group of pilots and tenants has offered to help pay for the operational costs of the embattled 88-year-old airfield on the south end of town.

Dewey Swank, a local business owner who leases a hangar at the 71-acre municipal site, approached the city council during its July 11 work session and proposed that city staff and airport users iron out a solution.

“The impetus behind the complaints comes down to money and who’s going to pay,” Swank said. “We want to make an offer to take responsibility.”

Swank told the Beacon he has a meeting scheduled next week with city staff. He declined to provide details of the possible deal, saying it was too premature.

“I hope we can work out a solution,” he said.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce came out in support of the airport prior to Monday’s meeting, saying it is “an essential public facility” that helps local businesses while also playing “a vital role in emergency response, law enforcement, and disaster management when needed.”

“The City Airport is a valuable asset to the community and represents an 80-plus year commitment by the City to the aviation community,” Chamber President Joe Unterreiner stated.

Unterreiner told councilors that a recent survey was sent out to chamber members; of the 50 who responded, 60 percent were in favor of continued operations at the airport.

The city council appears to be similarly divided on the issue while Swank’s offer marked the latest twist in an ongoing saga involving the airport, which remains a financial burden for the city whether it remains open or is shuttered, an option that has recently been put on the table by frustrated city councilors.

Many councilors on Monday expressed interest in negotiating with the airports users. The council agreed to delay making a decision for an indefinite period of time; it had originally intended to vote on a possible closure as early as next month.

“I’d like to hear the framework of what they’re thinking,” Mayor Mark Johnson said of the airport users.

Ward 3 representative Phil Guiffrida conveyed skepticism and introduced a list of conditions he would like to see included in any agreement. The conditions would include requiring airport users to establish a reserve account of $18.68 million to protect the city against future financial liabilities, including ongoing operations and maintenance at the site.

The outsized figure was rooted in a newspaper advertisement, paid for by airport users through Red Eagle Aviation, which claimed that the cost of buying out leases at the airfield could reach roughly $15 million, the demolition of the site could cost $1.5 million, and the total operational losses could reach $2.18 million.

City staff has disputed the figures listed in the advertisement, and CTA Engineers Architects, which studied the possibility of closing the airport, estimated it would cost roughly $2.9 million to buy out the leases.

Guiffrida criticized the ad as “polarizing” and used the seemingly inflated numbers in his proposed conditions as a response.

“This is the cause and effect (of the advertisement),” Guiffrida said.

Councilor Kari Gabriel responded to Guiffrida’s conditions with consternation.

“This is one council member’s opinion. This isn’t how I enter into negotiations,” she said. “If we’re going to do this, I certainly hope we’ll set this aside and start with neutral ground.”

Councilors Chad Graham, Rod Kuntz and Jim Atkinson expressed initial support for protecting the city from future liability if an agreement with the airport users fails to adequately address the financial costs.

“It’s a worthwhile approach to guarantee that the taxpayers don’t have to pay for the airport if they don’t want to,” said Atkinson, who said he remains in support of the airport. “I think there could be some conversation whether they should be paying for part of it simply because it is a community asset. I’m looking forward to the conversation to see what does transpire.”

Guiffrida, an outspoken critic of the airport who serves in Ward 4, has railed against the site’s financial woes and the city’s subsidization. As a way to settle the long-standing debate, Guiffrida said the city could float a bond request for maintenance and safety upgrades. This vote could help the council find out whether voters want the city to support the airport. He also said the city could simply increase property taxes through mill levies to support the ongoing costs. He did not say he supported these options but instead proposed them as possible solutions.

CTA’s report shows that the airport loses money on an annual basis. To keep the airport operational, the city would need to invest $900,000 over five years to address overdue maintenance needs and safety issues, and it would continue to operate at a loss in the future, according to CTA’s report.

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