- Denise G. Callahan Staff Writer
Butler County bought five more months to try to come up with a plan to help the Butler County Regional Airport fly on its own without county subsidies.
The county was able to negotiate a five-month extension on its contract with the Cincinnati Jet Center, so they can weigh their options. The commissioners were angered during budget hearings in October to learn the contract with Cincinnati Jet, the fixed base operator (FBO) who handles day-to-day operations at the airport, was set to expire this month. The airport has failed to break even for years and the short notice left little time if the commissioners wanted to put the contract out for bid.
County Administrator Charlie Young said the county isn’t jumping right on bidding out the airport contract. He said they have had good discussions with the operator about what can be done to improve the bottom line.
“We’re making good progress in moving in that direction,” he said. “Once we have completed those discussions with the FBO to the extent they’re satisfactory, we would be considering an extension for a longer period of time. If they prove not to be satisfactory we would then move forward with looking at a different way to operate the airport.”
The Cincinnati Jet manager could not be reached for comment.
Cincinnati Jet has been running things for five years and they turn over revenues from leases, gasoline and rent to the commissioners and keep the rest as profit according to airport Director Ron Davis. The county pays the operator to mow and plow at the field. He said the county receives 8 cents on the gallon and the contractor is pumping an average of 350,000 gallons a year.
It cost an estimated $251,783 to run the airport this year and revenues from the leases and gas are projected at $257,401. For next year revenues are only expected to top expenses by $9,277 and that does not include the $154,912 debt service payment. The county has incurred almost $3 million in debt for improvements at the airport since 2010.
Officials began talking to the larger jurisdictions in the county about possibly ponying up cash to help pay for the 10 percent matching money the county has to pay in order to get Federal Aviation Administration grants for capital improvement projects late last year. However, Commissioner Don Dixon said the overture was like putting the cart before the horse, because the county didn’t have a good handle on the exact financial landscape at the airport.
“I won’t ask any other entities to get involved with us financially out there until we know what we’ve got, and we have a solid plan in front of everybody that makes sense,” Dixon said. “If the plan is to just try and raise more money to make up for the money you’ve lost, I’m not interested in asking any other jurisdictions.”
The regional collaboration idea is still in the hopper but has been put on the back burner. Another idea being bandied about actually involves the one large jurisdiction that wasn’t asked to the table, the city of Middletown, which owns its own airport. Young said the county and Middletown don’t necessarily view each other as competitors in the aviation field.
“We really believe from initial discussions that there is a great opportunity for us to collaborate, perhaps having the same fixed base operator, perhaps having one person serve as administrator for both airports,” Young said. “To do this, rather than looking at this as competitive, look at them as supplemental to each other.”
Middletown City Manager Doug Adkins said it is premature to discuss collaboration with the county but, “it is an idea that we look forward to exploring with the county in early 2015.”
Middletown has been subsidizing Hook Field to the tune of about $90,000 a year and officials there are also looking to reduce that taxpayer contribution. The city is continuing work on a master plan for the airport but officials are staying mum about what those plans currently entail.
Denise Hamet, Middletown’s economic development director, said previously there is a lot of undeveloped acreage at Hook Field and the demand for hangars — which are currently all filled — is increasing. She said the city is looking to expand educational opportunities at the airport such as flight and helicopter training, possibly through a partnership with Cincinnati State Community and Technical College. There is also federal money available to retrain military veterans that could be tapped.
Commissioner T. C. Rogers said the county might look even further afield at ideas for expansion at the county facility. He had an idea that perhaps storing medical devices like heart valves — that might need to be flown to hospitals in an emergency — could be a creative use of airport land.
Rogers said the county still doesn’t have an exact dollar amount of what it would take for the airport to be self-sustaining, but the picture is brighter than they originally surmised.
“We want to have more than just an operation plan, we want a business plan to know what the actual cost of that airport is,” he said. “As we got into it, it was looking much more favorable than we thought a few months ago.”