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Paynesville Press - Sept. 10, 2003

New airport nearly completed

By Michael Jacobson

When asked why Paynesville would build an airport for a handful of local pilots, Steve Whitcomb says that it would be a silly thing to do, which surprises most people.

Paynesville did not build a new airport for the local pilots, explains Whitcomb, chairman of the airport commission. The new airport - which is nearly finished - will be another entry point to Paynesville when it opens, said Whitcomb, who does not fly himself but has worked on the airport project since 1996.

When Dave Peschong first joined the city council and the airport committee, he wondered why the community should spend a bunch of money on an airport that housed a half dozen local planes. But then he learned that the goal was to attract more pilots, more visitors, more people to Paynesville. That the new airport was really for people who haven't even been to Paynesville yet.

"We didn't build (the new airport) for the current airplane owners," said Peschong.

That it was built for a few local pilots is one misconception about the new airport, which has been attacked on several fronts in the last few years, including its cost, its location, and its zoning restrictions, especially as they affect the school property across Highway 23. The new airport started as a joint city and township project, but after months of disagreements the city continued with the project alone in August 2002.

Construction started in April 2003 and is now substantially complete. The city just needs to...before opening the new airport.

The city plans to have a grand opening next summer, with a breakfast fly-in for pilots (showcasing the new airport for them) and possibly including an air show, said city administrator Steve Helget.

"The hope is to bring people into town, either visitors or businesses," said Steve Brown, the only pilot on the airport commission.

Brown has flown since 1988, for both business and pleasure. Originally an electrician, he started to work with computer controls - in dairy barns, manufacturing plants, nursing homes, etc. - which led him to travel farther and farther from Paynesville for work. One day, Brown flew to Austin for a service call and then to Grafton, N.D., before coming home.

"As time is getting to be shorter for everyone, flying is getting to be a better option," said Brown, who has two sons that fly, one professionally as a pilot and the other for fun, though he also makes his living in aeronautics, working as an aircraft mechanic.

Any pilot could build his own private grass runway on 40 acres of land, said Brown, so local pilots could have continued to fly whether the local airport was improved or closed. In fact, local pilots will actually have to pay higher rents at the new airport and will incur costs to move their private hangars.

The hope is that the new airport will attract more pilots to town, more tourists, more potential residents, more business owners, etc. Pilots may stay overnight, eat lunch, play golf, attend a tournament or an activity at school, or like Paynesville so much that they move here permanently or bring their business to town, said Whitcomb.

"It seems like people who own planes have money," said Peschong laughing at the irony, "so what better place to have them spend (their money) than Paynesville."

While the new airport's location close to town drew criticism in recent years, airport supporters have argued that having the airport near town makes it more attractive to visitors. Since the purpose is to attract people to come to Paynesville "to build an airport out of town makes no sense,"Ęsaid Whitcomb.

Word-of-mouth is strong in pilot circles, said Brown, and the new airport will be very attractive with its location near town, within walking distance of restaurants, a hotel, and a car dealership. Brown's favorite place to fly for dinner is Superior, Wis., an hour flight away with a restaurant right off the runway. The restaurant actually has parking spots for planes as well as a parking lot for cars.

"It's very hard to put it's value on paper," added Brown of the new airport, which the city is committed to operate for at least 20 years. "If we're able to attract another business because a CEO can land his plane here, how can you put a value on that?"

At the very least, more planes will be based in Paynesville with the new airport, with their owners spending money in town when they come to fly their planes, said Whitcomb.

"We didn't see how it could not benefit Paynesville," said Peschong. "It's another highway into town."

The new airport - with a longer, paved runway - will allow larger planes to land. The old runway can handle planes up to 4,000 pounds, while the new strip can accommodate planes three times that weight.

But not many planes can land at the old airport, because it has a grass runway and is a restricted airport (for safety reasons) despite being publicly owned. As such, the old airport was not listed on aeronautical maps, while the new airport will be listed as a public facility by both the state and federal governments.

Most pilots won't land on a grass airstrip because it is not covered by their insurance, said Brown, who has a rider on his policy because he is based on a grass runway. Rented planes - which are common - also are frequently prohibited from landing on grass strips, he said.

That means that if Brown lived elsewhere and wanted to come to Paynesville for work he could not land on the old grass runway, but he could use the new airport.

The costs for building the airport were just over $600,000, with the city of Paynesville covering $80,000 and the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Office covering the rest, around 87 percent of the construction costs.

The city still faces some costs for the project, like for land acquisition. The city gained title to over 200 acres of land for the project through eminent domain in August 2002 from five property owners, but a price for that land has not been determined yet by the court. The city deposited $332,000 a year ago for land acquisition, based on the appraised price of $1,600 per acre.

If the court agrees with that price, the city would pay $132,800 for land acquisition (40 percent) with MnDOT paying the rest (60 percent). The city has settled with one landowner - Dennis and Catherine Rothstein - purchasing 48 acres for $1,600 per acre and purchasing another 12 acres, with Highway 23 frontage, for $3,000 per acre.

(The city has also settled on a half-acre easement with Pat and Lorie Meagher, leaving three unsettled.)

The city is also planning to erect a 10-unit tee hangar to house planes at the new airport. The city also has received bids for the construction of a hangar for $326,600, with MnDOT covering parts of the cost in a 60-40 split again.

Peschong thinks they will not only fill a 10-unit tee hangar but could fill a 20-unit tee hangar. "If we give these flyers a reason to come here, they will," he predicted, in part because general aviation gets less priority at busier airports like St. Cloud, which is increasing its freight business. Plus, pilots from Waite Park and New London can get to the Paynesville airport just as fast as they can get to the airport in St. Cloud and Willmar respectively.

"If we build the hangars, they will come," agreed Brown. "I'm sure that's going to happen."

Once 25 planes are based at the new airport, the city can apply for federal funding, covering 90 percent of the costs, to expand the runway.

Since Paynesville has had an airport since 1946, closing the airport would not be progress, Peschong said. "We as a community don't want to go backwards. Why would we want to lose something that's been here for 50 years?"

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