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Air Force approves helicopters at Des Moines base; airport plans for development, new jobs in question

The U.S. Air Force has approved moving 10 military helicopters and 200 jobs to the 132nd Wing base in Des Moines from Boone, and has informed the Des Moines airport that it has no interest in changing its $1-a-year lease that runs through 2060.

The Air National Guard needs hangar space for its expanding Black Hawk unit, and the Des Moines base, which already employs 1,000 soldiers, already has room, said Iowa National Guard spokesman Col. Greg Hapgood.

The National Guard Bureau’s contention that the current lease is valid puts the Des Moines airport in a bind and may both limit future economic development and bring a costly revamping of plans related to the planned construction of a new terminal building and proposed hangar development on part of the Guard base at the north edge of the grounds, airport officials have said. They contend that the Guard wouldn’t need the full 172 acres it previously used for fighter jets that were moved from Des Moines, even if the helicopters were added.

The airport board had scheduled a closed session to discuss litigation Tuesday, but canceled the session. Kevin Foley, executive director and general manager, told the board that the National Guard Bureau indicated in a recent letter that it the federal government has decided not to deliver a promised appraisal of the Des Moines base. The Guard also noted that its review of how much land it needs is taking longer than expected.

“That is a disappointment,” board chairman Ed Hansell said.

Iowa Public Radio on Tuesday reported that the Boone community wants to keep the helicopters and the related jobs. But Hapgood said the military plans to move 200 positions from other areas to Boone to “backfill” the jobs. Currently, an environmental impact study is underway; if that doesn’t turn up trouble, the helicopters, worth $15 million apiece, will move to Des Moines, he added.

Two of the helicopters already are in Des Moines; eight more would be added later, Hapgood said.

Foley has attempted to get the Guard to return part of the base so that hangars could be built there, providing an important revenue source. The Guard pays $1 a year for its lease as long as it has an aeronautical mission in Des Moines. The parties have differed on what qualifies, but the Guard considers the helicopter operation an aeronautical mission qualifying for the lower rent.
Foley has said the Guard would have to pay market rent on any land not directly used for an aeronautical mission.

Currently, the Guard base operates drones stationed outside Iowa, and has stopped proving firefighting support worth more than $1 a year. The Guard also has fallen behind on sewer payments. In a letter to the airport, federal officials suggested that the airport file a request for payments officials consider outstanding.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s office has been circulating a letter to Iowa’s congressional delegation seeking to resolve issues the Federal Aviation Administration has with the current Guard lease arrangement, but so far it has not gathered the signatures of the representative and senators.

In other action, the airport board heard a presentation about the possibility of public-private partnerships that could reduce the cost of the new airport terminal, or at least parts of the project, by 20 percent by having a private company build the facility then lease it to the airport authority.

Read previous coverage of the lease controversy on BusinessRecord.com.

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