Carroll airport overcomes turbulent period

Corporate hangars draw businesses to facility

November 16, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

A year ago, none of the seven corporate hangars at Carroll County Regional Airport had permanent tenants. Today, the county-owned airport has secured long-term leases for five hangars and is negotiating agreements for the remaining two.

That development, along with the recent arrival of a new maintenance company at one of the hangars, shows that the long-struggling airport is slowly taking off and beginning to realize its potential, county officials say.

One projection has the financial underachiever in the black within three years.

"I kind of feel as though we've gone through a period of time where we've passed adolescence," Carroll Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said of the airport's progress. "We're at a point where we're in early maturity and becoming one of the key airport markets in the region."

In recent years, the airport, which opened in 1979, has made several improvements - including building the corporate hangars, at a cost of nearly $4 million, and extending the runway - in hopes of marketing itself as a prime location for pilots traveling the mid-Atlantic.

But the airstrip, along Route 97 outside Westminster, hit some legal and financial turbulence along the way.

In 1999, the county became mired in a dispute with a contractor hired to build the corporate hangars, stalling the project. Last year, two then-county commissioners sought to replace the airport's operator, Westair Aviation Inc., but backed off because the company's owners had a contract that runs through June next year.

More pointedly, the airport has long been a money loser. The county collects revenues from renting out the terminal building and several small hangars to Westair and renting the remaining hangars to other customers. It also receives a percentage of fuel sales.

The airport's operating budget comes from those revenues, augmented by $40,000 in county money in the fiscal year that began in July. Last year, the airport posted a $50,000 loss, partly due to the facility starting to pay off its debt service on the construction of the hangars.

But in the next few years, the financial outlook is likely to change for the better, said Gary Horst, who supervises the airport in his duties as administrator of the county's Office of Performance Auditing and Special Projects.

The county is to collect all of the rent from the seven corporate hangars. Horst declined to specify the current rental rates, but said the county hopes to eventually charge $6,000 a month.

Based on long-term calculations, the county is expected to more than break even on its investment after 2006, Horst said.

"It's gratifying to see these things come together," he added. "The corporate hangars had a rocky beginning but it's all happening now. The community is finally in the posture of benefiting from the investment."

On Friday, the county commissioners toured the airport and several newly occupied corporate hangars.

Inside one hangar, they got a glimpse of two glossy airplanes, worth a total of $36 million, that are used by business executives and celebrities.

At another, the commissioners celebrated the official opening of International Air Support Inc., a new company partly owned by Westair offering full maintenance and avionics support to pilots and aircraft owners.

Another tenant, EFB Aviation, said securing a corporate hangar at Carroll County's airport makes sense because the company mostly picks up its clients at Dulles Airport in Washington. EFB signed a five-year lease at the beginning of the year.

"The cost advantage was too great not to consider this," said Brian Stites, EFB's director of aviation. "Now, we're adding more airplanes, and being in one place makes very good business sense."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said she's excited by the airport's improvements, especially that tenants have been found for the corporate hangars.

"We knew they would bring the airport to the potential it has to operate efficiently and bring in money," Gouge said. "That's what we want."

In the meantime, projects to improve and expand the airport are underway.

Construction crews are working on a $3 million project to expand the airport's apron, the area for aircraft next to the terminal. The project, which is 90 percent funded by federal dollars, also entails remilling and replacement of blacktop around the small hangars.

Long-term plans include adding another 25,000-gallon fuel tank, expanding the 5,100-foot runway and buying adjacent property for further development, Horst said.

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