The Port of Astoria’s Airport Advisory Committee has recommended spinning off the Astoria Regional Airport and the agency’s other holdings along the Warrenton waterfront into a separate authority.
The committee also recommended several short-term ventures to generate money, including ministorage, a water sports park and a food cart pod.
The Port Commission asked the airport committee last year to look at how the airport might make more money to support operations.
The committee found that while the Port has kept up with local matches for Federal Aviation Administration grants to maintain the runways, the agency cannot keep up the surrounding roads, buildings and other infrastructure.
The report cautioned that the Port “may reach a point where the airport becomes beyond repair.”
Jobs and grants
The airport supports around 400 jobs and more than $20 million in payroll, but struggles to break even based on operations and racks up an estimated $100,000 in deferred maintenance each year. It brings in a vast majority of the Port’s grant revenue because of military traffic from the Coast Guard and Army. But the grants are tied to runway maintenance.
Spinning off the airport would allow the Port to focus on the central waterfront in Astoria, said Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer, who works for airport tug manufacturer JBT Lektro and is the chairman of the airport committee.
“The Port would have a great opportunity in ensuring the sustainability of the airport,” Balensifer told the Port Commission last week.
The committee recommended creation of a task force, including the Port, other local governments, state agencies and the FAA. The Port could and should remain a stakeholder in the new airport authority, Balensifer said.
Coupled with the creation of a new authority, the committee recommended a bond to fix the most critical infrastructure issues and provide local matching dollars for future FAA grants. Voters rejected a $1.96 million bond in 2017 to pave the way for Life Flight Network’s new hangar and other improvements at the airport.
The Port and tenants have lauded Gary Kobes, the airport manager, for his oversight and ability to secure federal grants.
“The committee recognizes that when Gary Kobes retires, the airport may once again be without an on-site manager for a long time, at which point the airport is more than likely to degrade to a level it becomes unsustainable,” the committee’s report said. “The committee asks the Port to ponder the long-term implications of losing an asset by choice and sustaining that asset for the region by spinning it off, or the implication of losing the airport through slow decay.”
Frank Spence, the Port Commission’s president, said he likes the idea of exploring an airport authority and will pursue creating a task force once the airport committee finalizes its recommendations.
Just west of the airfield is the Port’s Airport Industrial Park, an undeveloped field grazed by cattle and mostly designated as wetlands. The committee recommended a ministorage complex of 60 40-foot storage containers on the 3 acres of developable land in the business park, where Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, previously pitched an environmental research center.
The ministorage could create more than $120,000 a year in revenue and easily be moved if necessary for a brick-and-mortar development like the environmental center, Balensifer said.
“We’re not talking mega millions, but we’re talking quick profits, low infrastructure requirements, low maintenance requirements,” he said.
The committee recommended creation of a water sports camp on the East Skipanon Peninsula. Much of the peninsula was once proposed as a golf course and, later, part of a controversial liquefied natural gas terminal.
Knight proposed creating a wetland mitigation bank at the site to provide credits that could be sold to offset regional development. But the land has largely remained an unofficial dumping ground, off-road course and homeless camping area surrounded by dikes that connect Warrenton’s trail system.
Warrenton had unrealized plans for a windsurfing and kitesurfing platform on the East Skipanon Peninsula near the Premarq Center, Balensifer said.
“In the ’90s and early 2000s, windsurfing was very popular until it all moved to Hood River, where facilities and amenities abound,” he said. “There’s an opportunity, we think, in bringing that back down here, as well as the philosophy of use it or lose it.
“With natural environs, if you don’t use that asset, they get overgrown and then get more difficult to develop in the future.”
Much of the peninsula is platted into streets and lots. The Port surrendered a lease at the tip of the peninsula to the Department of State Lands after the dissolution of the proposed LNG terminal.
The committee recommended the Port vacate the plats and partner with the state to ease the regulatory burdens for development, while partnering with Warrenton and the Lower Columbia Tourism Committee to advocate for projects.
A final recommendation called for a food cart pod at the corner of King Avenue and Harbor Drive as an amenity to the water sports village and an incubator for new restaurants. In recent years, several food carts have set up shop around Warrenton on Main Avenue, Dolphin Avenue and at the airport.
Because of wetland issues, “the only type of development that makes sense is mobile food establishments in that area,” the committee concluded. “Existing Warrenton establishments that have sought to expand have run into flood code issues for new construction which has effectively halted their growth in place.”
All the recommendations the airport committee presented are meant to boost airport revenue in the short term, Balensifer said.
“We weren’t looking at anything in the sense of 50 years from now or 30 years from now,” he said. “It was five-year windows or less.”