Middletown, skydiving business disagree on plans for new facility and fees at airport

Start Aviation, who operates Start Skydiving and the city of Middletown are slated to meet in March to discuss various issues at Middletown Regional Airport. FILE PHOTO An airplane takes off from Middletown Regional Airport/Hook Field Wednesday, May 25 in Middletown. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Middletown and the Start Aviation skydiving business disagree on future plans for the company at Middletown Regional Airport, to which it draws thousands of visitors each year.

Last month, City Manager Doug Adkins sent owner John Hart II a concept for a new Start Aviation facility. In the Jan. 18 proposal, Adkins said the city could build and own a new $2 million facility, similar to one seen in a visit last fall to Rochelle, Ill. Adkins proposed a new facility on a site occupying four acres on the north side of the airport.

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The new facility would have a 100-car parking lot, and the plan proposes lease payments with a 2 percent inflation increase factored into a new 25-year lease.

Based on past performance,, Adkins conservatively estimated that by 2025 there would be just more than 90,000 jumps in a year at the airport.

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Adkins also proposed the airport charge a $3 per-use fee for Start Aviation and others such as remote control aircraft and other single-activity users. He likened this to the city’s 3 percent nightly lodging tax charged at local hotels. He also said he believed that people come to Middletown to skydive and would not leave because of the fee.

“We want whatever works best long-term at the airport,” Adkins said. “Start brings a nice tourism component to the airport. If we can work out a win/win scenario that keeps them and also allows further other development at the airport, that would be the best outcome for the city.”

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In a Jan. 29 response, John Hart III, one of the owners and the son of Hart II, disagreed with parts of the plan.

“Unfortunately, the proposals you have provided (are) not financially sustainable with our business model,” Hart III wrote. “In addition to its lack of viability, relocating our operations to either end of the runway will pose a much higher risk of an incursion by placing our customers near the same area and altitude as aircraft flying their patterns. Keeping our operations away from the ends of the runways is key to not only the safety of our customers and staff, but the safety of all of the airport’s users and tenants.”

Hart III said the proposed area would also be better suited for a business that would benefit from the high visibility and ease of access from Route 4, which their business did not need since their jumpers can be seen in the air from many miles away.

Hart III said the business would be interested in discussing other options, such as relocating their business operations to the JETS Hangar. The sides are scheduled to meet on March 4.

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Hart II said Thursday that the facility proposal and $3 jump fee would not work for their organization.

“(Customers will) go somewhere else where its cheaper,” Hart II said. “You don’t charge tenants these fees, only visiting aircraft.”

Hart II said the skydiving operation brings people to Middletown. In the past, Hart said said Start Skydiving attracts about 60,000 to 80,000 visitors per year to Middletown with a direct economic impact of $10 million to $15 million.

“We’re the only aviation activity that brings in revenues to the airport,” he said.

Hart II said he was confident his organization and the city “will work it out” and that they will be presenting other options when they meet on March 4. He said those options include staying in their existing hangar and fulfilling their lease; moving to the JETS Hangar; or building a new hangar.

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The new $490,000 airport master plan and airport layout is expected to be completed by Sept. 1. That process of the Federal Aviation Administration approving the plan is expected to take at least six months, said Matt Eisenbraun, assistant city economic development director.

About $2.4 million has been spent on airport improvements with federal and state funding in the past five years, Eisenbraun said. Eisenbraun said the city’s match for those projects has been about $250,000.

Adkins said the city is working on a final design for the education hangar, which received $750,000 in State Capital Improvement Funds. The new education hangar will be used to support educational programs relating to aviation and aviation support.

City officials envision developing a hub for aircraft maintenance at the airport. In addition, Cincinnati State is developing an avionics and electronics component program for its Middletown campus.

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