Feb. 8, 2019 – As the debate into the future of the Excelsior Springs’ Memorial Airport intensifies, airport supporters attended the Excelsior Springs City Council meeting to voice their concerns with plans.
Thomas Creel addressed the council regarding what he said he described as the city’s attempt to close the airport. He said the council assured him at their Dec. 3 meeting a malfunctioning door on the airport’s north hangar would be repaired. A few days later, he said, city officials chose to destroy the door instead.
City Manager Molly McGovern said the malfunctioning door became an issue earlier. She said it came equipped with a braking system to keep the door from falling on a person and causing injury. The city expected to fix the door and move on, she said, but a pilot told her he needed his plane out to keep a scheduled lesson. In addition to this, the Excelsior Springs Area Chamber of Commerce trolleys being stored in the space needed the door open to keep previously scheduled appointments.
McGovern said due to the time constraints, the city made the decision to remove the door. To open the door, she said they would have to apply equal pressure to both sides of the 48 feet wide door. In addition, if they cut the cables to free the door, she said, it could pose a risk to workers.
After meeting with McGovern and Mayor Brad Eales, Creel said city officials told him they did not have the money to repair and maintain the existing door. He said pilots agreed to provide the funds to do the repairs, but city officials refused the offer.
“In a meeting that I had with Brad and Molly, I was told the why,” he said. “The city of Excelsior Springs has to be in a runway business, but not in an airport hangar business anymore.”
He said when looking at the minutes of the Dec. 3 city council meeting, he saw the council’s recommendation to repair the door recorded and asked McGovern when they changed their decision.
McGovern said the council discussed the matter during their scheduled retreat that took place after the meeting and decided to remove the door.
Eales responded by reading a letter he planned to submit to The Standard’s Managing Editor. The letter can be read in its entirety here.
RENTING THE SPACE
Creel said he believes Eales and McGovern wish to close the airport and did not have any intention of advising the pilots of their intentions to turn the hangars over to other departments. When he read The Standard’s story regarding Excelsior Spring Parks and Recreation taking ownership of the north hangar, he said he and the other pilots believed it to be part of the overall plan.
“Well, we all got together and it made sense, the plan was in the works over a month ago,” he said. “It just needed some strategic planning to enforce it. That’s why the door was cut off, it was to drive the pilots off.”
McGovern said the city looked for private businesses or another city department in the past with the funds to maintain the buildings and who could also provide the needed maintenance to the existing buildings.
The Parks and Recreation Department put together a proposal to remodel the north hangar to meet their needs for $50,000, which would provide savings to their additional $100,000 budget, McGovern said.
“(This would) not disrupt the operations of the airport other than the loss of three indoor hangar spaces,” she said. “There remain several unrented outdoor hangar spaces in the property.”
She said the interest from the Parks and Recreation Department did contribute to the decision to not repair or replace the door.
Ron Holmes said he wanted to know who made the decision to remove the door. He said Airport Manager Don Myers advised the city of two additional pilots who wanted to house their planes at the site. He said he wondered if city officials decided to remove the door quickly before the new pilots arrived in their attempts to close the airport.
McGovern said Myers did share the interest of two pilots, but the city did not have signed leases at that point. Because of this, they decided to move forward to rent spaces to the trolleys.
Creel said he believed Eales to have a conflict of interest in dealing with matters concerning the airport. He said Eales’ brother lives close to the property and does not want the planes flying over his house. Creel said Sylvia Eales visited an airplane board meeting asking for the planes to not fly over her son’s house.
McGovern sits on the Chamber of Commerce’s board, Creel said and told Myers to make room in the north hanger for the two trolleys.
City Councilwoman Sonya Morgan said McGovern did not think the trolleys would be a good fit for the space. Board members asked her to see if she could make room, Morgan said.
McGovern said she did not believe the trolleys would be a good fit for the space due to their schedules. She said she thought having to frequently move the trolleys would cause an additional moving part to the equation that could cause issues. However, the city began renting spaces to recreational vehicles, boats and campers for a few years.
“To agree to rent to trolleys was not out of line compared to our practice of renting to non-aviation,” she said.
Creel said the airport exists as a recreational airport for lightweight aircraft. He said he compared the
recreation as no different than walking a dog or playing golf. According to figures found on the city’s website, Creel said, the city spent $19,846 and $23,954 in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Also according to the same figures, Creel said the city spent almost seven times more during those same years on the golf course. He cited $124,000 in 2016 and $189,000 in 2017.
Tray Harkins said he wanted to provide figures to help the community understand why the city invested money in the golf course.
He said 60 percent of golf play came from outside of the community. He said many of those who have traveled to play golf also stay in Excelsior and shop and eat here, creating a positive economic impact on the community.
Harkins said if one applies the number of out-of-town players and the average number of dollars they spend in the community to the economic impact formulas, a substantial impact can be seen for the Excelsior Springs community. According to a survey taken from 2012-2017, he said golfers added an average of $846,100 per year to the local economy.
Creel said he knows the airport will never bring in a large amount of money for the city. However, he said, if managed properly, it will bring in money.
Thomas Shue, one of the candidates for City Council said the officials have an obligation to protect the city’s assets.
“When you take and decide to do something different with the airport without partnering with the community that actually owns the airport which is the citizens, you’re doing a disservice to your office and the oath that you gave to the people when you took your office to protect the citizen’s assets.”
He said the city should find someone who cares about aviation to provide creative solutions to protect the airport.
The city, along with members of the airport board heard a proposal from a private businessman to build a hangar that would house 10 planes with rent of $250 per month, McGovern said.
“If the board could find 15 interested tenants, he would construct the new hangar,” she said. “After the businessman could recapture his investment, the hangar could convert to city ownership and the rents would be enjoyed by the airport.”
McGovern said the city mailed a letter to a list of all licensed pilots in the area and garnered no interest The board could only find 7-8 potential tenants, she said.
Mayor Pro-Tem Sharon Powell said she sat as Liaison to the Airport Board for a few years.
“Through that time, ideas were expressed on how to increase revenue at the airport,” she said. “In my opinion, the board did not take the initiative to follow through on these ideas.”
McGovern said the city also reached out asking for interested fixed based operators to no response.
An opportunity which McGovern said she described as “exciting” also expressed interest in the site. Although she said the interest expressed from a parachuting outfit would be a great fit for the community, due to liability reasons, the city could not make it work.
As the owner of a trucking company, Creel said his company parked cars for an air show that occurred in Mosby. They made “a ton of money” just parking the vehicles, he said.
Bruce Bellemore of Wood Heights said many in the community possess fond memories of the airport from their childhoods. The site hosts BBQ Fly-In festivals and other events which helped raise money for worthy causes, he said.
CIVIL AIR PATROL
Most recently, Bellemore said the Civil Air Patrol, which holds their meetings at the airport, partnered with the Kansas City Police Department in helping to track those who may wander off, including Alzheimer’s patients, he said.
The program provides a tracker which Bellemore said he helped to test. He traveled to Rocky Hollow and walked into the wood area, he said. The CAP found his location within 2 1/2 hours, he said.
“Our airport does give a lot to the community,” he said. “It does cost the city money, but so do all the parks, the community center, but the airport is one of the amenities that have and can still generate money for the city.”
Carl Harper, another candidate for City Council said he wanted to offer a plea for the city to allow the CAP program to continue to meet at the location.
McGovern said she reached out to the CAP program and plans to allow the program to use the space. She said the state CAP program sent her an agreement this week advising her of the details of the use.
THE AIRPORT’S USE
Creel said the Excelsior Springs airport serves as a place for recreational pilots to fly their lightweight planes safely, something they cannot do at the Clay County Airport in Mosby.
“The hobby pilots don’t want to be in their air when an IFR pilot poses his flight plan 10 miles out coming in at 150 miles per hour while they’re only flying around at 15-20 miles per hour,” Creel said.
Creel said he spoke to corporate lawyers about the possibility of a class action lawsuit against the city for the gross mismanagement of an airport. He said he also contacted the Federal Aviation Administration due to the hazard associated with having pedestrians and golf carts on the runway and tarmac. He said he found no notices advising pilots of the potential dangers associated with such practices.
“Throughout the past two years, I suspect there were several thousand lives that were endangered by this gross mismanagement and failure to comply with the FAA airport guidelines,” he said.
McGovern said Myers advised her he issued the required notices for airmen for all golfing events scheduled in compliance with the FAA.
Creel said he plans to start a petition with the intention to save the airport. He said supporters want the city to provide such services including not tearing down the airport, not misusing facilities, not bullying the pilots to leave, replacing the airport board, replace the hangar door, repair fuel system and establishing an airport budget.
The city purchased a fuel system which cost the city over $24,168 in maintenance over the course of six years, McGovern said. The city made $22,190 in profits over the same period, she said, a loss of approximately $2,000.
The airport board advised the city of another fuel system which other airports used with success. However, McGovern said they could not guarantee the new system would work, and the city decided to not take the gamble.
McGovern said any budget for the airport would have to come out of the city’s general fund along with public safety and the budget to help fix minor street repair, including potholes. Other city departments, including parks and recreation, have their own separate budget due to the revenue they acquire. According to state law, McGovern said the city can not use money from one’s department revenue in another department’s budget.
McGovern said because the funds would have to come from the general fund, to establish a budget would take money from the other departments included.
Creel said he plans to continue to fight any action attempted by city officials to close the airport.
“I love our city as much as everyone here,” he said. “I really do not want to tie up all the tax dollars in fighting this thing … but I will.”