Airports, Communities, and Pilots

Alex Doty/Grand Haven Tribune photo

The front page headline in my hometown newspaper said “Grand Haven Airport expansion to appear soon.” And the story was very positive and upbeat. None of the usual carping about airport expansion or money being spent on airports. Good news about an airport in the general media. Rare in much of the country, but not here.

Of course, to the non-pilots writing and reading the story the “airport” being expanded was not the runways and taxiways we think of first but a building. A “terminal” building the Grand Haven Tribune calls it.

The expansion is 1,500 square feet of new space in the main airport building including a multipurpose room, handicap accessible restrooms, space dividers to make separate rooms and a kitchenette. The new space will be used by flight instructors, EAA Chapter 211 and others. The total cost of the project is $458,000.

Why is this spending on the airport greeted as good news by the local media and government officials when all I hear is a steady drumbeat from pilots that their airport is cutting back on spending, threatening to shut down, and doing everything to discourage flying? I don’t think there is one single answer why Grand Haven is different from many places, but let me try.

For more than 20 years I lived and flew in the New York City metropolitan environment. The situation there couldn’t have been more opposite. My home airport, Westchester County, battled in court for its life and nearly lost even though it is one of the most used business flying airports in the country. With somewhere north of 20 million people living in the area you barely needed to use both hands to count the number of airports available to GA.

New York is the extreme example of urbanization in our country, but the issues of big city versus small town are pretty much the same. In a big city available space and resources are used up. Life becomes a zero sum game. If your neighbor gets more space, is allowed to make more noise, or change his property in some way it directly impacts you. In a big city nothing can be changed without having consequences for somebody else. Expand an airport in any fashion and thousands will be affected in some way.

In small towns there is still space to grow. Yes, any change will impact others, but fewer than in a big city. And because the small town has fewer people and thus fewer competing opinions on how to move forward agreement is not easy and automatic, but at least possible.

Being able to agree on how to improve, grow and expand can do wonderful things for a small community. Because Grand Haven supports instead of fights its airport improvements it can get somebody else to pay for them. Only $23,000 of the $458,000 expansion project came from local funds, the rest being available from federal and state grants. Getting this kind of outside funding isn’t magic. The money is available. But it takes foresight by the local government and community support for a project to go get the money.

Another important asset of the Grand Haven Airport is EAA Chapter 211. The chapter is celebrating its 50th birthday this summer and has been very active in the Grand Haven community. Chapter 211 holds a number of events to welcome the public to the airport every year. And the community welcomes Chapter 211 which will be one of the primary regular users of the new expanded building on the airport. Again, no magic. Being part of a community is a two-way street.

And the local government works to integrate the airport into the rest of the community. For example, the new building will be available for any resident to reserve for a party or meeting. A baby shower was one example a government official offered for a possible use. The airport is not off limits to non-pilots and is available to all.

As for the airport itself Grand Haven is planning to trim trees growing into the approach paths, and to find the funds to repair and improve the hangars. The overall goal is to maintain and improve the airport and to spend any money the airport generates on the facility.

We are blessed with an abundance of airports of all sizes here in West Michigan and overall airports receive positive support from their local governments and communities. Having lived and flown on the East Coast of the U.S. and now on the east coast of Lake Michigan, there is no question which is best for pilots and airplane owners.

But, pilots being pilots, the only comment posted on the newspaper website about the airport expansion story was from an airplane owner calling the government names for not allowing him to build a hangar on the airport. One comment, it’s negative, and it’s from a pilot. Sometimes we don’t know how good our lives really are.

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4 Responses to Airports, Communities, and Pilots

  1. Len Assante says:

    The last paragraph says it all. I’m the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer for my home base. I got a call from a local pilot once complaining about our recent airport expansion that extended taxiway Alpha the full length of the runway and adding 1300′ to said runway. He hated his “tax dollars” being wasted on airport improvement. The main funds used were an FAA improvement grant. He also complained about the “politics” of the hangar waiting list.

  2. Kayak Jack says:

    Mac, I’m glad for Grand Haven and their ties to the community. I hangar at Mason Jewett, not far from you. While we also have good ties to the community (Mason MI), our airport manager is an enemy. Odd, that the community is more supportive than the guy who is SUPPOSED to be helping.

    Renting out a room for a baby shower is a capitol idea! Integrating portions of a community in addition to aeronautical and business interests, adds even more ties. And – especially adding young people as allies is absolutely outstanding! Good on ya!

    [Now, get a cure for the bumpy air in the traffic pattern over the river and dunes ;-) ]

  3. BLAINE BANKS says:

    MAC…I have been involved with aviation for 45 years. My observations have been that the land developers themselves are the ones who set up this scenario time and time again. They purchase inexpensive land around airports and develop it in ways that are contradictory to operations at these airports in terms of noise and acitivity and then walk away laughing all the way to the bank. The residents who then move in, eventually see the airport as an unwanted neighbor and go after it. Many airports come to mind in this scenario. Two very specific cases come to mind in California. One is Sonoma County airport and the other is Chico. The airport manager in trying to prevent this encroachment problem at Sonoma County, bought up land on both of the approach paths in order to protect the airport. A land developer stepped in, sued the operator on the basis of the fact that they didn’t “need” that property for operations, and won. He then proceeded to build a school and shopping center on the approach path. Chico, CA is quite a distance from the built up residential areas. A developer decided he could make more money by buying cheap land near the airport and proceeded to put a residential community right next to the airport…away from all other population centers. This type of Land Developer activity is one of the main threats to airport survival, not to mention the politicians with no backbone to protect their airports, due to their desire to placate the land developers, who want the land to make money and tease the politicians with big supposed tax revenues, once they get the lands developed after the airports demise.

  4. Jim Bell says:

    A pilot not wanting his tax dollars to be spent on airport expansion isn’t any more wrong than a pilot that wants new buildings and runways built. We all have different ideas and thoughts about what the perfect GA airport is, and is not. The fact that the majority of the money spent came from the FAA doesn’t change anything. It is still tax dollars, just federal rather than state or local funds. The pool of people paying the tax may be bigger, but all government money is tax dollars.

    It is a tricky situation for many of us. I am the first to scream when the government spends money on “pork” projects. Yet I am in love with all aspects of flight and that means my passion is dependent upon the government at all levels putting tax dollars into things like airports instead of towards something like schools or roads. I can totally empathize with a pilot of a Cessna 172 that doesn’t understand why money is being used to expand a runway that is currently long enough to handle the traffic. It may be purely funding, it may be a cover for him to oppose the bigger and faster aircraft that may come as a result of longer runways, but it is likely a combination of the two.

    While we may not agree with one another on all aspects of aviation it is important for us all to feel as if our opinions are valid and listened to by groups like EAA and AOPA. When representatives of these groups aren’t willing to listen to pilots that wish to be heard we’re all worse off in the end.

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