Big decision looms for future of Middletown airport

After years of receiving various grants for improvements at Middletown Regional Airport, city officials will need to choose a path to follow for future development.

Middletown City Council will need to have a work-session in the next few weeks to discuss determine whether the airport remains a skydiving airport with some development; or it phases out skydiving and concentrates on aviation-related jobs only, according to City Manager Doug Adkins.

A policy decision is needed by January, according to Adkins, as the city moves forward with airport development as well as addressing remaining lease issues with Start Skydiving/Start Aviation. The city is in the process of developing a new airport master plan and airport layout plan.

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The city is currently working on an airport master plan and layout plan, however, it is wrestling with how it can accommodate a large skydiving operation as well as developing the airport as an aviation education and aircraft maintenance hub.

“We’ve been on a dual path so far,” Adkins said.

While the city has been keeping its options open, Adkins said a thorough discussion on policy for the next five years is needed as well as resolving the outstanding lease issues with Start Skydiving.

Before the city spends money in building a hangar for Start Skydiving/Start Aviation, Adkins said the city is considering moving the skydiving facility to the north side of the airport along Carmody Boulevard and shifting the aviation/industrial side to the south (Hook) side of the airport off where the current hangars are located.

Last week, Adkins, Hart and airport manager Dan Dickten flew to the airport in Rochelle, Ill., where they spent nearly two hours to see how that airport operates with its skydiving operation. Adkins said the $2.3 million facility also offers other recreational opportunities that included a sports bar, fire pits, an event/banquet venue, beach volleyball leagues, and an extreme sports store.

He said Hart believes this could be done in Middletown. Adkins said the skydiving operations are a top tourism attraction, with about 50,000 jumps a year and that it ties into downtown master plan, the bike trail, the newly opened River Center, First Friday and other downtown and Great Miami River efforts.

Adkins said if the city chooses to move away from having a skydiving operation, the airport will have more of a business focus. He also said some companies and pilots will not stop, fuel or build at a skydiving airport due to safety and scheduling issues.

He said these were the two scenarios and that both could work successfully.

“There is some middle ground, but it will inconvenience both,” he said.

Hart, who was at the most recent city council meeting, said he “was very frustrated several months ago that there was no communication with our organizations on what was really happening at the airport.”

He said he’s met with city leaders and that they are moving forward as a team to address these issues.

He said he sees a lot of good things happening in Middletown and that he continues to have a strong commitment to the city. Hart has said his skydiving operation brings in 80,000 visitors annually to Middletown, adding “we bring value to the city.”

Matt Eisenbraun, assistant economic development director, said updated airport master plans are required to continue to receive federal and state grant funding for improvements such as new lighting or the paving of taxiways and runways. The cost of updating these plans is $490,000, of which 90 percent is from the Federal Aviation Administration, and 5 percent each from the state and city.

Eisenbraun said the plans are in the forecast stage, which describes where and how city officials think the airport will operate in the future as well as a projection of critical operations and airport usage. The updated airport and layout plans are expected to be completed and forwarded to the FAA for review by mid-2019. He said the final FAA review takes about six months before the plans are approved.

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