HARRISON – Years ago, after much discussion regarding the value to the county of the Clare County Airport, review of costs for repair, as well as progress on a pilots’ lounge, a decision was finally made to make saving the airport a priority.
At an additional Clare County Board of Commissioners meeting held March 20, 2016, the BOC approved a motion to enter into an airport authority with Hayes Township and City of Harrison to be reviewed by the county, city and township councils in three years. That proposal was then taken to the other parties for city and township sign-on.
The original intent of the cooperative effort was to bring the airport up to a higher level which would enable qualification for grant funding, and ultimately to offer flight fuel onsite. The agreement included a contribution of $5,000 each from the city and township in addition to $10,000 from the county.
Some repair and lighting work has been done, but work on the pilots’ lounge hit a snag and came to a standstill when it was realized the hangar housing it is low-lying and subject to flooding.
Over the past few years, at meeting after meeting, the alliance among the three entities is brought up for review – and belt-tightening has brought into question whether the joint effort brings any real return on investment. That has led all three entities to withhold their funding portions, as they await specific answers as to what repairs/upgrades will cost, and what sort of grant funding information could be realized.
At the recent April 21 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners, administrator Tracy Byard brought the board up to speed regarding a conversation she had with airport manager Gale Bensinger.
“He has informed me, after a conversation with someone from the state, that there are grant funds available for the airport,” Byard said. “And we are hoping with those grant funds for repairs to the runway, the lighting, the pilots’ lounge – all of those things needed to bring our airport from a basic utility up to a general. Then, hopefully, eventually we can get some fuel and those types of things out there.”
Byard said the grant funds could be applied for in September, adding that Lori Phelps, Community Services director, had agreed to help with writing that grant.
At its April 20 meeting, the Hayes Township Board also heard a bit about the airport, along with some advice about how important it is to consider carefully what it would mean to allow the airport to disappear.
Addressing the board were Jim McBryde and Pam O’Laughlin of Middle Michigan Development Corp. O’Laughlin spoke of having been working very closely with Clare County, Hayes Township and the City of Harrison to get the airport back to operational status. She also noted having met that day with Tracy Byard regarding the airport and detailing what it would take to reach that improved status.
Maye Tessner-Rood, Hayes Township treasurer, clarified that those meeting on behalf of the three entities have been seeking cost information, learning what happens to the buildings – but that nothing has been resolved.
“So, when she says we’re working on it, we’re working on it together,” Tessner-Rood said. “All the information we can get. They didn’t have bids on runway work or anything. It’s putting everything together, because a decision has to be made – whether it’s through the state or not – those are buildings on leased land there, that people paid money to build. How do you dispose of that? And nobody had any answers.”
Thus, she said, people have “been beating the bush” to find answers so decisions can be made.
McBryde said that was a great comment.
“The other thing I would say is you have to look at it as an infrastructure issue,” he said. “You have investment in infrastructure already out there, so you’re kind of at a crossroads. Do you close it and give it back to the state, with all the complications there would be with that? Or, do you fix it and try to do what some of the other smaller communities have done and try to bring in more traffic by having aviation fuel for sale?”
McBryde said that is a big thing that the Clare Municipal Airport has done, and that people from the Mount Pleasant Airport come to Clare to fuel up because it’s cheaper.
“Having the fuel available is a big thing, but you’re not going to have that unless some improvements are made to the pilots’ lounge and so on,” McBryde said. “Once you get to a certain level, you can trigger a lot of FDA money, and MDOT would pitch in too. So, you’re kind of at that point that you’ve got to go one way or the other.”
He said MMDC is all about economic development, and as such is focused on trying to do the right thing to foster economic development for the area. He also urged that the three governmental bodies make an informed decision, and not just give up the airport.
“Because once you give it up – it’s gone,” McBryde said. “That’s the only thing I would caution you on. Before you do that, let’s make sure you know what you’re giving up and what the opportunities would be to fix it up. And what kind of additional revenues that could bring into the area.”