The Astoria Regional Airport barely pays for itself operationally. But the airfield supports nearly 400 jobs, primarily from the U.S. Coast Guard air station, and brings in the lion’s share of federal grants to the Port of Astoria.
Port commissioners recently committed to spending another $233,000 on local matches in 2021, without knowing the ultimate source, to ensure the Port stays in the pipeline for $3.4 million in federal grants to continue a multiphase rehabilitation.
The former military airport, transferred to the Port after World War II, has undergone a series of improvements over the past few years, starting with runways and drainage and moving to taxiways. Work on the apron, where airplanes park and refuel, will start in 2021.
The Port has faced consternation over how to pay for local matches on federal grants, with revenue drying up from a log export market decimated by a trade war between the U.S. and China.
Will Isom, the Port’s executive director, said the agency has no immediate plans on how to pay for the airport grant match.
“I think there’s a bigger discussion to be had going forward on sort of the business model of the airport and what that looks like,” he said. “I do think, however, at this point, with all the construction to taxiways and ramps that we’ve done over the last few years, it is important that we finish off that project and get the apron repaired.”
The Port could use money from a special revenue fund to pay for the apron project if necessary, Isom said. The Port is also in line for a $150,000 state Department of Aviation grant to be awarded next month.
Despite funding difficulties, the airport is thought of as a critical piece of infrastructure with an understated regional impact.
The Columbia River Bar Pilots bring ship captains to and from all incoming and outgoing oceangoing vessels by helicopter from the airport. The Coast Guard oversees search and rescue, fisheries enforcement and law enforcement on federal waters from the air station.
“The airport is much more of a provider than to private airplanes that are hangared there,” Commissioner Robert Stevens said. “The airport really is not a flying club. This is a part of the Port of Astoria that helps sustain the community.”
The Port should soon be clearly in the black operating the airport after a couple of lease negotiations and real estate transactions underway, Gary Kobes, the airport manager, said.
The Port’s Airport Advisory Committee is weighing several recommendations for making more money, from food carts to campgrounds. The committee is also discussing whether to recommend spinning the airport off into its own special district.
Kobes, 74, is lining up several maintenance projects and funding before he retires in the coming year. He has managed the airport as a contractor for nearly five years.
“The airport has been part of the Port for 80 years … ” he said. “It’s not been a big revenue-generator for the Port district in that time, but I think it’s really helped serve the economic development mandate the Port has.
“I just sometimes think we need to not be viewed as the red-headed stepchild,” he said. “How you do that in the structure of the organization moving forward, and the mission of the organization moving forward, that all needs to be played out.”