Carroll's regional airport overcomes turbulent period

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.

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."

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