Coming in on a wing and a prayer at DMW


January 07, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

IN MAY 1998, the county commissioners hired a firm to build and manage seven corporate aircraft hangars at Carroll County Regional Airport/Jack B. Poage Field.

The aim was to attract corporate customers and make the airport the dynamo of county economic development.

The 10,000-square-foot hangars would be finished by year's end and most space would be rented even before they were completed, the firm's owner predicted.

As we know, these hangars are still incomplete -- even lacking heating units needed for winter -- and only two have been rented.

After a year of legal wrangling with Hangar Corp. of America, the county only took possession of the $3 million buildings last month.

Significant work is still needed to finish some of them; a new contractor has to be hired.

The main subcontractor is still waiting to be paid for the work that's been done.

Construction of the incomplete hangars may be finished by the end of May, the commissioners now say. That's three years after signing the initial contract.

The county's dispute with Hangar Corp. over cost overruns and completion schedules held up the project for over a year.

Only now, however, have the county commissioners decided to move ahead -- by forming a committee to craft a long-term development plan for the small airport (and to market these corporate hangars).

While one could reasonably argue that Hangar Corp. was expected to do it all -- build, sublet, market and manage these airplane garages -- the county still had to come up with an overall plan for making them an integral part of the economic development scheme.

The delay and indecision is typical of the county's outlook for Poage Field, also known as DMW to pilots.

The commissioners just don't know what the small airport (one of 34 in Maryland) should become. And they're leery of making commitments that could cost the county money.

When the governor put up $1 million last year to subsidize commuter air service between small Maryland airfields and Baltimore-Washington International Airport last year, Carroll seemed interested.

After all, with plans to establish a corporate aircraft base through its new hangars, the next logical step might be a scheduled air link to BWI.

A survey of local business by the Chamber of Commerce turned up limited interest in the proposal. And it would cost the county about $60,000 a year to get the idea off the ground.

That out-of-pocket cost seemed to be the clincher for the commissioners to veto the project in July.

There wasn't enough chance to get their money back in the short-term. No long-term economic development perspective was welcome.

Besides, as Commissioner Robin Frazier dutifully noted, the Carroll airport isn't making any money right now so why risk further investment?

In fact, the county put $83,000 toward subsidizing the Carroll airport last fiscal year. (That's less than it puts into the school lunch program.)

So where is the vision of this airport as the centerpiece of county economic development?

What was it that was so appealing about the corporate hangars concept to prompt the $3.3 million investment (which will end up costing the county more, now that the legal suits and countersuits have been resolved)?

Well, for one thing, the projections showed that the county would get its money back over the course of the agreement with Hangar Corp. And the county would still own the buildings.

Business aircraft using the facilities would also generate a lot of other revenues for the airport and economic activity for the county.

If the original assumption that corporate aircraft hangars will fire economic development in Carroll is still correct, then the county needs to go ahead with the project as quickly as possible.

After all, federal, state and county taxpayers have sunk more than $15 million into recent improvements at the airport to move it in that direction.

That includes lengthening and widening the runway to nearly a mile long and installing a new fuel storage system.

With all this going on in recent years, why is it only now that there's a committee looking at long-term development?

And why, if these past airport investments are justified, does the county shrink from pursuing a commuter air schedule?(Going ahead with the application to the state wouldn't have cost the county anything, Commissioner Julia Gouge pointed out.)

One possible reason may be the lingering uncertainty about the fixed base operator of the airfield and questions about its financial operations.

The commissioners approved a new contract in late 1999 with WestAir II as airport operator, despite concerns about its management and financial losses.

At the time, the firm and its predecessor owed the county $90,000 for unpaid, fuel, rent and other items.

Records were incomplete or missing, as well.

The feeling then was that the skies were clearing for the Carroll airport, that the operator and county would prosper.

But we're still waiting for takeoff.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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