Turbulent times for South St. Paul's airport

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2012 - 9:56 PM

The city is working on a master plan to eliminate debt and improve management at Fleming Field.

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Wipaire is refurbishing this 1940 Grumman Goose for a celebrity. Wipaire is based at South St. Paul’s Fleming Field, the metro’s only city-owned airport.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Pilot Jim Hancock has an airplane for every occasion.

He has a lightweight Breezy, the equivalent of a motorcycle with a wing, when he wants to feel the wind in his hair. He has a twin-engine for cross-country hauls, a Cessna with floats for "playing on the water," and an aerobatic plane for loops and rolls.

The retired Northwest pilot keeps them at South St. Paul's Fleming Field, where he's been a tenant since 1968. He is one of dozens of recreational pilots, business owners and city officials now looking at the small airport's future as they embark on writing a new master plan.

"It's just nice around here," says Hancock, who meets other pilots for coffee at the terminal seven days a week. "This is probably the most active little airport around."

Fleming Field is the only city-owned airport in the Twin Cities. Home to 16 businesses and the Minnesota Civil Air Patrol, Fleming Field generates 465 jobs and created $47.8 million in economic impact last year, according to one study.

"A lot of people come to work here every day and a lot of people don't realize that," said airport manager Glenn Burke.

But Fleming Field has also weathered its share of turbulence, as the city has struggled to balance the demands of airport-based businesses, recreational pilots, neighbors and lean financial years. The airport borrowed from the city about 2007 for construction to accommodate a waiting list of 80 pilots seeking to build hangars, only to watch demand dry up in the recession. The airport also still owes the city money for the construction of a new terminal in the 1990s.

Some pilots and airport business owners say relations reached an all-time low in 2010 when the city toyed with eliminating the airport manager to cut costs. The city decided to keep its full-time manager after fierce lobbying by the tenants and some businesses.

The city also faced FAA scrutiny for accounting practices, including spending airport revenue elsewhere against federal regulations. The city agreed to return more than $200,000 to the airport's budget.

Pilots, business owners and city officials hope the new master plan will chart a clear course ensuring the airport's survival and prosperity. The city also formed an airport advisory commission to improve communication.

"What is clear to everyone is this airport is a gem, an economic engine the likes of which doesn't exist elsewhere in South St. Paul," said Jeff Sheridan, pilot and president of the Fleming Field Aviation Association. "The city would be very wise to treat it as such."

A master plan will review safety and create a timeline for capital improvements and possible redevelopment of aging structures. It will also include a comprehensive business plan that ideally pays off debt and staunches the red ink.

Mayor Beth Baumann said she'd like to see the airport pay off its $1.69 million debt to the city and become completely self-sufficient. If the city does need to contribute to projects, it will be mapped out in advance.

"We haven't always planned well," Baumann concedes. "This would give us a more definite plan on where we'd like to go."

The airport logs around 63,000 take-offs and landings each year. It's home to the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Force, which operates a museum and holds hangar dances.

"It's brought a lot of history to South St. Paul," said City Council Member Lori Hansen.

The airport generated $1.2 million in revenue in 2011 from fuel sales and rent. Revenue has covered expenses five of the last 10 years and the airport has even paid off some debt, said airport manager Burke. In the years the ledger runs red, the airport has borrowed from the city.

But the city was so strapped for cash in recent years that it laid off its code enforcement officer and other staff.

"We have been slow to see that change in the debt posture," said City Administrator Steve King. "We need to take a structured, more disciplined approach to that."

But some business owners say city officials fail to see the bigger picture: The airport brings high-paying jobs and tax dollars.

Wipaire Inc., which manufactures aircraft floats for water landings, is the largest business on Fleming Field with more than 100 employees. It joined pilots in lobbying to save Burke's job two years ago. Wipaire's owners bristle at recent lease increases at the airport.

"The attitude of the leadership in the city is that the airport, in their view, may not carry its weight and is a financial burden on the city," said Charles Wiplinger, president of Wipaire. "They have a pretty good gig ... The economic impact on the local community is in the millions and millions of dollars. It's no insignificant amount. I don't know if they comprehend that."

"I would respectfully disagree," said King, the city administrator. "Top to bottom, the City Council has great respect for the airport and has moved forward to put in place structures and relationhips."

"The city has done an excellent job of facilitating our needs and working with us in the ups and downs of the aviation industry," said Boris Popov, founder of BRS Aerospace. The city helped BRS build a new facility at the airport, Popov said.

If there is one point of agreement at Fleming Field these days, it's that a once-chilly relationship between stakeholders and the city seems to be thawing. Mayor Baumann calls it a "détente."

"It was an unpleasant time, but a necessary time for all involved," Sheridan said. "We all said, 'Let's sharpen our pencils and look at the numbers.' A lot of good has come out of that."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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