County Seat Newspaper
of Clare County

New Airport Committee Fires Up First Meeting

Real Planning to Wait for Aeronautics Board Evaluation


HARRISON – At the Feb. 15 meeting of the Clare County Board of Commissioners, administrator Lori Phelps pointed out that under Act 90 of 1913 123.66a: County Airport Committee Appointments, Powers and Organization, Sect. 6-a County airports are run by three-person county airport committees, and the committee members are appointed by the county board and are either county board members or county road commissioners.

It would seem that stated committee structural requirement had not been strictly adhered to. Back in 2015 the 11-member Clare County Airport Advisory Board had included three county commissioners, the airport director, chairman, vice chairman, secretary and four additional members. In 2016, the Airport Advisory Board became the Clare County Airport Committee, a triad of Clare County, Hayes Township and City of Harrison representation, with each entity contributing financially to the support of the airport. It had seven members, only two of whom were county commissioners. That group had continued to fundraise as it worked toward its goal of upgrading the facility to a level that could sell aviation fuel, something deemed a pivotal factor in drawing more recreational pilots and potentially commercial businesses into the area.

One of the first cooperative projects shared by the three entities under their new agreement was a new sign placed prominently at the airport, giving it identity and place. That 4-by-8 sign read “Clare County Airport 80D Operated in Participation with the City of Harrison and Hayes Township.”

Fast-forwarding to the present, with the new awareness of the legally required committee structure, a new Airport Committee was formed, wherein County Commissioners David Hoefling and Rickie Fancon joined Commissioner Gabe Ambrozaitis who had taken on the duty of committee chairman.

The Airport Committee members established a meeting time of 5 p.m. the fourth Monday of each month in the Board of Commissioners Room of the Clare County Building. Their first scheduled meeting had to be grounded due to severe winter weather, which led its actual first meeting to land on time Monday, March 27. Unfortunately, illness prevented  airport manager Gale Bensinger from attending.

Several interested pilots were on hand to ask questions and learn about what might lie ahead for the airport. In addressing Old Business, Ambrozaitis informed that signing of current and updated hangar leases was in process.

Ambrozaitis began by clarifying what truly can and cannot be done at the airport – and why. He explained that on March 8, he and the county administrator had traveled to Lansing, where they met with Mike Trout, executive administrator of the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics, and deputy director Bryan Budds. There it was learned that in 2020 there had been an airport inspection done which generated a multi-page report. Only one page of that Michigan Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics Inspection Summary had been received by the Airport Committee.

“I now have a copy of it,” Ambrozaitis said. “It’s everything they did when they were up here. They flew it with a drone, so there were photos taken of the approaches to all the runways and of the hazards. Of course, it was done in 2020 and we had some issues with our runways, and there’s an entire report on our runways and our approaches.”

Ambrozaitis said the result of the hourlong meeting was that a new inspection will be done this year in April-May, whenever the leaves are back on the trees.

“They’re going to fly the drone again,” he said. “They’re going to map our approaches once again, update which trees are popping up into the aviation easement – and we’ll see what we have to do after that.”

He said a pavement specialist will be sent to give another review of the pavement, also in that April-May timeframe.

“I look forward to them coming up,” Ambrozaitis said. “We’re going to have a new report for 2023.”

It was then noted there are eight hangars on the airport property, and Ambrozaitis said something that seemed to be missing from the hangar leases was a reversionary clause. He also informed hangar lessees present of a possibility that lease payments could increase by 5% as allowed in the agreement.

“So, we’ll see how that goes – to fund some of the improvements we make as we go forward,” he said. That spurred a question regarding the status of airport progress, referencing the previous plan to improve the runway which had been premised on the pilot lounge completion being necessary in order to attain funding for runway improvement.

“When we were down in Lansing, we spoke to the Bureau of Aeronautics,” Ambrozaitis said. “Mr. Mike Trout discussed the NPIAS airports [National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems]. Harrison is not a designated NPIAS airport – Clare is, Gladwin is.”

He went on to explain that NPIAS airports cannot be within 30 miles of one another, unless they’re grandfathered – which is how Clare, Gladwin and Midland, all within that 30-miles limit, are NPIAS airports.

“At some point in the past, [Clare County] either was asked or turned down becoming a NPIAS airport,” Ambrozaitis said, going on to address the good and bad about being a NPIAS airport. “One is you’re open for state and federal funding. A NPIAS airport would open up a lot of things for us, but then you have to do exactly what the FAA and MDOT Bureau of Aeronautics says in terms of maintaining your airport and how you progress. Obviously, there’s a lot of paperwork involved in being a NPIAS airport. “If you are not a NPIAS airport, then you have a lot more flexibility and a lot more freedom.”

Ambrozaitis then addressed the airport lounge/pilot planning center which had been intended to get the airport into the next higher category of General Utility Airport.

“That would have done nothing for us,” he said. “That wouldn’t have gotten us NPIAS, because even if they had that we would never have become a NPIAS airport because we can’t – because we’re within 30 miles of Clare, and 30 miles of Roscommon, and 30 miles of Gladwin.”

He described the previous plan as a pipe dream, repeating that fixing up the entire pilot planning center would not have made a bit of difference.

A question about paved runway maintenance led Ambrozaitis to note that Ben Evergreen, West Branch Community Airport manager, had provided the name of Mead & Hunt airport consultant Stephanie Ward. That led to a more than hourlong conversation, in which she suggested the board might want to consider pulling down a runway.

“That’s pre-decision, and I’m not saying we’re doing that right now,” he said. “It’s all yet to be discovered and figured out, but her assessment of our airport was that we need to figure out what the Bureau of Aeronautics is going to do in April. That is the first step – we need them to come up here and give us a baseline of April-May of 2023 to see what we need to do.”

He then spoke of clumping on the turf runways as reported by Bensinger, and said they need better maintenance. Discussion then turned to the roller used for that purpose, and that it was out of use due to a bearings problem. A meeting attendee offered to work on it, but then Rickie Fancon, who manages GFL adjacent to the airport, offered to donate sending his mechanics to look it over, retrieve it, and replace the bearings.

One attendee pointed out the high airport usage he sees, especially pilots who take advantage of Jackie’s Airport Restaurant which sits on the airport property. He said his reason for coming here is that in the fall there isn’t any much better place. He noted the location as ideal, being just down from Houghton Lake, especially if someone wanted to run flight instruction.

Ambrozaitis reiterated Ward’s indicated need for ensuring navigation easements are cleared, and then fixing the paved runway.

“She said don’t talk about anything else until those two things are done,” he said. “She said don’t even worry about the turf runways until those two things are done.”

Also noted was that Airport 80D is one of only three in the state with a restaurant located on airport property – the other two being in Burton and Owosso – which Ambrozaitis described as a huge benefit.

And, as usually happens, there was mention of the $100 (now $300) burger; that’s what pilots call spending that much money to fly to an airport with a restaurant onsite. The restaurant has always been a big draw for pilots, and Ambrozaitis said the restaurant’s owner had been reassured rumors of the airport being sold were not true, and there was no intention to change the county/restaurant agreement.

“It is a big draw to bring people in, whether it’s flying clubs or some sort of an event,” Ambrozaitis said. “I think that’s the focus, so we’re going to continue with that.”

Talk then turned to the airport budget, which Ambrozaitis said had subsisted through the sale of lots, a budget which the county administrator has informed will be exhausted by the end of this fiscal year. That led into the likelihood of raising the hangar leases 5%, as well as for the restaurant.

“That said, I think the bigger issue is going to be MDOT Bureau of Aeronautics,” Ambrozaitis said. “They have a new pilot program, a state and local partnership, [and] they might be able to help us on fixing the runway and maintaining the lights. We’ll have to see where that goes. The budget is obviously a concern because we have to figure out how we’re maintaining the airport going forward.”

Local pilot Carl Loundsbury inquired about whether the road commission could be prevailed upon to assist in rolling the turf runway, and Ambrozaitis said he had spoken with a CCRC engineer, who said expertise could be provided, but the question would need looking into equipment/personnel-wise. Ambrozaitis clarified that the Airport Committee is required to be either county commissioners or road commissioners, not both. He added that the airport by Bad Axe in Huron County is the only one in the state is run by road commissioners. Ambrozaitis acknowledged the road commission’s primary focus is the roads the public uses and a runway would be far down on its priority list. However, he did note the suitability of that entity taking on the task because what is that turf runway if not a 2,978-foot road?

When an attendee asked about any additional ways to generate funding for the airport, Ambrozaitis spoke of the 2022 initiative to create a Dirt Dash. He said that all he has been able to ascertain from county records indicates the Clare County Airport is owned for aeronautical purposes only.

“So, when we deviated to that Dirt Dash, it put us in a different focus,” Ambrozaitis said. “And that put us in the prevue of Hayes Township. So, if it’s for aeronautical purposes and the county owns it, and obviously the Bureau of Aeronautics oversees it – any fundraising would have to be aeronautical. A fly-in, a fly-in pancake breakfast, remote control airplanes, things of that nature are aeronautically focused. That is doable.”

Again, it all leads back to the condition of the runway; Ambrozaitis said he heard reports of 4-inch cracks, and Loundsbury noted riding in a pickup down the paved runway last year and being soundly bounced around. Noting the unlikelihood that it has improved and citing his belief that simply patching it would not last and be throwing good money after bad, Ambrozaitis said he didn’t think that would be the proper way to handle it.

“That’s why I’m looking for the Bureau of Aeronautics to tell us how we fix this,” he said, adding that runway was already reduced down to 1,800 feet due to displaced thresholds [useable runway foreshortening due to trees]. He said that the displaced nearly 1,200 feet was being maintained, but for no defined purpose.

“There needs to be some clear understanding and some clear thinking on how we go forward with fixing that runway,” he said.

Having determined the meeting dates for 2023, it was noted there would be a meeting Dec. 18 rather than Dec. 25 due to the Christmas holiday. The Clare County Airport Committee meets next at 5 p.m. April 24 in the BOC Room of the Clare County Building in Harrison.


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