Community leaders grapple with regional airport decision
Government officials in eight Dallas County cities have agreed to continue discussions regarding the possible formation of an airport authority and the development of the West Metro Regional Airport, an estimated $20 million project that continues to stir some controversy in the area.
The airport, which has been the topic of discussion since 1996, is aimed at promoting “quality development” in the state’s fastest-growing county. But project organizers will first face the task of bringing together eight government bodies to decide if this should happen and, if so, who will pay for it.
“The question that remains is whether or not the economic gains would equal or surpass the cost of the airport when you take into consideration the cost of a $20 million project,” said Brad Golightly, chairman of the Dallas County Board of Supervisors.
According to an airport master plan and site-selection study, the proposed project calls for a three-phase approach to the creation of a regional airport in Dallas County, with a site yet to be determined.
Planners expect that, should the West Metro Regional Airport receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, that agency would provide 90 to 95 percent of the funding needed to see all three phases come to fruition. The remainder of the funding would come from private partners, the state’s Revitalize Iowa’s Sound Economy (RISE) fund and a tax levy increase in the eight partnered communities.
Officials spearheading the project are confident that a regional airport would be attractive to new and existing businesses, and that high-quality business growth would create jobs, more income and more spending while contributing to a growth in the tax base and tax receipts.
“I believe any time there is an airport in an area, it is going to foster additional development opportunities,” said Michelle McEneny, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s aviation office.
“If it attracts businesses have that have above-average wage earners for our communities, that’s kind of a goal,” said Golightly.
The city councils of Adel, Clive, Dallas Center, De Soto, Urbandale, Van Meter, Waukee and West Des Moines have all passed resolutions in recent months accepting the master plan document, designating the Dallas County Board of Supervisors as the sponsoring agency for the project and directing that an airport authority agreement be prepared for review.
“The county will step aside as the sponsoring agency and the airport authority will fulfill that role,” Golightly said. “Once that airport authority is created, that’s the point of no return.”
Plans call for the construction of a 4,400-foot runway in phase one and extending the runway to 5,500 feet in phase two, with hangar additions and general airport improvements in phase three. The length meets the minimum requirement to allow corporate jets to land.
“The goal is for economic development, not weekend warriors,” said Golightly.
The idea of a regional airport west of Greater Des Moines has already drawn the interest of several local companies. A group of 13 corporations, including Hy-Vee Inc., AllState Industries Inc., Regency Homes Inc., Krause Gentle Corp., and MidAmerican Energy Co., funded 70 percent of the cost of completing the master plan.
And McEneny said recent studies have found that more companies are becoming increasingly dependent upon airports for private travel, with airports such as the Ankeny Regional Airport able to not only retain their business clients, but also bring in new clients.
An airport feasibility survey was mailed to approximately 1,500 residents and businesses located in Dallas County and western Polk County as part of the airport master plan and site selection study. Of the 37 percent who responded, 74 percent said they use general aviation for their business ventures and 30 percent indicated southeastern Dallas County would be the most convenient location for the airport, compared with 19 percent who indicated Central Polk County (Ankeny) would be the best site.
The feasibility survey also found that 28 percent of respondents own an aircraft and 11 percent, or 59 respondents, plan to purchase an aircraft for business or personal use within the next 10 years.
With the master plan now completed and approved by the eight cities, Golightly said the next step will be to engage the communities in discussions regarding the formation of an airport authority, which would manage the operations of the airport through a board of directors consisting of representatives from the eight cities.
“Yes, if we build an airport, a plane will land there,” said Golightly. “We just need to push the envelope and get people to step up or step out.”
The airport master plan and site selection study identified six possible locations for an airport in southeastern Dallas County. Two of the sites are located west of Waukee, one is south of Dallas Center, two are outside Adel and one is northeast of Redfield. According to the master plan, study sponsors indicated their preference for a site south of U.S. Highway 6 and east of county road R-16. (The second Waukee site is south of Highway 6 and west of R-16.)
The master plan document says the layout of the site “entails a minimum of structural and infrastructural needs and offers favorable areas for airfield and landside development without substantial earthwork and drainage. The site has great access and visibility from Highway 6 (Hickman Road) and R Avenue (county road R-16). R Avenue extends south to an interchange with Interstate 80.”
This layout has been planned to maximize the land use around the airport for commercial and industrial development along the Highway 6 and R Avenue corridors.”
There is the likelihood that one residence and several outbuildings would need to be removed, and a 375-foot communications tower could be an obstruction.
But the site, though still only one of the six that are under consideration, has raised some flags, as the land is part of a 200-acre option agreement the city of Waukee entered into in December 2002. The city has exercised its option on 40 acres, with the purpose in the option contract stating its intended use as a recreation complex.
“The primary site for the airport is on much of that same property, so it’s certainly an issue” said Waukee City Administrator Mark Arentsen. “There are numbers of potential sites that the feasibility study identified, so I think the city is going to wait and see what the study committee recommends as the primary site. I would say that, if this is selected as the primary site, the city would not pursue the remainder of the option contract.”
If the project goes ahead, I think the city would expect to be provided (by Dallas County) with another site (for a recreation complex).”
A preferred site will be identified and submitted to the FAA next May, according to a tentative timeline for the West Metro Regional Airport development. But that is only part of a lengthy process to secure project approval and funding from the agency.
The tentative timeline suggests that the FAA is unlikely to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact until late 2006 as part of an environmental assessment.
Golightly was quick to point out that the future of this project hinges a great deal on whether the FAA provides approval and funding.
McEneny said chances of the airport receiving the go-ahead from the FAA have been increased dramatically by its inclusion into the State Aviation System Plan, a 20-year, long-range strategic plan.
She added that airport projects taking place from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal 2007 that receive FAA funding automatically receive 95 percent funding, an increase from 90 percent such projects received prior to fiscal 2004. She said that change has created a bit of uncertainty as to what level of funding the West Metro Regional Airport might receive if it goes through after fiscal 2007.
Private investments, RISE funding and local contributions will also factor into how the project is funded. Golightly estimated that the participating communities will be asked to contribute approximately $4 million to the project, which they’ll obtain by imposing a property-tax levy increase on their residents. He added that an 8- to 10-cent levy may allow phase one and phase two to be completed simultaneously.
The chairman expressed concern, however, that because an airport tax is a permanent subsidy, it does not require a public referendum.
“It seems strange to me that a potential for a ‘forever tax’ is not required to come to a referendum,” he said.
The total cost of the project could increase before construction, which is not anticipated to begin until mid to late 2007, as the $20 million estimate was made in 2003. McEneny said estimates from other airport proposals have fallen between $15 million and $25 million.
As the community leaders begin to move ahead with further discussions regarding the formation of an airport authority, future plans call for discussions within their respective communities to ensure that all interested parties are well informed.
“Each community is going to need to handle how they discuss it within their communities,” said Golightly. “Once we agree with other communities what it’s going to cost, we’ll model it and present it to the public and see if it makes sense or not before we agree to form this airport authority – or not.”
Though many are openly supportive of seeing this project move forward, there are still some who remain critical, questioning whether Central Iowa needs another regional airport.
“What I’m thinking is that, between Des Moines International Airport and the Ankeny Regional Airport, we can certainly house all the existing airplanes in the area and provide a level of service that they would expect to get,” said Barney Bushore, president of Exec 1 Aviation, which holds the lease on the operations at the Ankeny Regional Airport.
Plans for an extension to that airport’s runway have been approved, with construction set to begin in the spring, and Bushore said that, with the planned expansion, the airport is capable of handling any corporate flight in the area.
“I think if Dallas County would continue on like that, there’s no doubt down the road that we would not get as much business as we would like to see, of course,” he said. “But we’re very busy and I don’t foresee our current level of activity changing at all, other than getting busier and busier.”
He further questioned an analysis in the West Metro Regional Airport master plan that claimed an airport in Dallas County would provide a time-saving benefit to companies located in the western portion of Greater Des Moines, saying it was hard to justify a $20 million expenditure to save corporate travelers few minutes of travel time.
“I think Ankeny has done a tremendous job over the past decade and will continue to do so,” said McEneny. “I don’t think there’s a direct connection between Ankeny and Des Moines (International Airport) and the fact that there is a need in Dallas County.”
Northwest of Des Moines on U.S. Highway 141, Randy Tarleton, operator of the Perry Municipal Airport for more than 30 years, is convinced that a regional airport is not only unnecessary, but a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“They talk about it being good for Dallas County,” he said. “I think they’re blowing smoke.”
Tarleton and Bushore both acknowledge that private corporate travel is becoming increasingly popular; for example, Adel-based Stine Seed Co. houses a jet at the Perry Municipal Airport. Tarleton questions whether there will be enough corporate-owned aircraft to continue to supply an adequate level of business to his airport and others throughout Central Iowa if the Dallas County airport were built.
“I don’t know where they think all these airplanes are going to come from,” he said. “I know their people have said they won’t be taking any airplanes from any other airports. But they’re not just going to materialize.”