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City closes NYM airport as cost-saving measure

A group of pilots and aviation enthusiasts from the area made compelling arguments Tuesday to save the New York Mills airport, but in the end, the city council voted to close the grass runway.

The council passed a resolution for temporary closure for a period of two years as a cost-saving measure for the city.

A handful of pilots from New York Mills, Wadena, and Perham attended the public hearing, held Tuesday during the city council meeting to ask the city to keep the airport open.

David Krusmark, who owns property at the east end of the runway, is a pilot and flight instructor. He questioned the city's costs associated with maintaining an airport. The city estimates it costs about $6,000 to mow the grass runway for roughly six months each year. City workers do the mowing and the estimated yearly costs figure in wages, benefits, supplies, equipment, etc.

He also questioned the nearly $500 it cost the city for phone service last year at the site, and the $800 to $1,000 it costs to have a portable toilet there. Krusmark asked the council to consider ways to bring costs down rather than close the airport entirely.

"Does the community recognize the value of having an airport here?" Krusmark asked. He used as an example the fact the airport could be critical in evacuation procedures in the event of a large-scale emergency.

Krusmark suggested the city promote the airport better and market to pilots who could fly in for various community events and visit local businesses and restaurants.

"Losing such an asset, even in tough economic times... I don't think it should be considered an option. You should look at getting expenses down and getting the community more involved," he said.

Mayor Larry Hodgson commented during the hearing that the city council has to consider the taxpayers in the city, and how this affects them. With the loss of Local Government aid, the city is forced to make cuts in every area and department. Hodgson said the airport is used so infrequently that it is no longer beneficial for the city or the taxpayers to keep the airport open.

Council member Richard Rankka also said they have to consider the taxpayers.

"I appreciate everybody's input but my biggest struggle with what I've heard tonight is the people here are not paying taxes in the city."

Rankka went on to say he thinks it's great that the airport benefits the pilots and their businesses, but he still struggles with how it helps the city.

"I have a tough time with this, too," said council woman Dianna Wallgren. "We're facing infrastructure problems and the taxpayers are getting hit hard. I work in the grocery store and the people I talk to are saying if there are ways to cut, go ahead."

Wallgren said since she started taking notes a year ago on comments about the airport, six people have told her to leave the airport alone and 92 want it closed.

"This is costing our citizens something and I don't think they are benefitting from keeping it open," Wallgren said.

Annual average cost to the city each year from 2003-08 to keep the airport open is roughly $8,500.

Dan Boerner and Kathy Vesely of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Office of Aeronautics also attended the hearing and provided information regarding costs and closure of the airport.

According to their evaluation presented, the city purchased the property for the airport without state funds. The City of New York Mills purchased the land in 1962, for $5,760. The property encompasses 30.19 acres.

In 1963 new airport grading cost $8,080 paid for with state funding. A beacon was installed in 2003 at a cost of $5,941. Of that, $1,188 was local funding and $4,753 was state funding.

The county assess the 30.19 acre parcel at a value of $135,760. There are no buildings on the airport property. There is no fuel system and no weather station on the property.

If the city decides to permanently close the airport after two years it will be required to make a repayment in the amount of $4,753 to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the airport beacon.

The beacon has been in operation for six years. Using a depreciation schedule of 20 years, the present value of the state investment is $3,327, which is owed to the state.

Bonnie Hintzman, whose husband is a pilot, lives north of New York Mills and would like to see the airport remain open. She talked about the importance of getting young people interested in flying and having an airport here helps to get more people involved.

Greg Anderson of Wadena is a pilot. His father and mother were both pilots, and he has a brother who is a commercial airline pilot. Anderson acknowledged he does not pay taxes in New York Mills but still feels the airport is important to the community.

"By you closing the New York Mills airport, 50 years form now when we're all in the ground people are going to ask, why?"

Darrel Janson of Janson Flying Service in Wadena added his thoughts.

"Once the airport is closed, it's gone forever, he said. "You'll never have an airport again.

Charging pilots a landing fee each time they use the airport was one idea discussed, as well as the city building a hangar and charging for plane storage, to generate revenue and offset some of the costs.

Al Berube, a former NYM councilman, commented at the hearing that it was good to see such good discussion and ideas brought to the table. He suggested if there is a flying club around, members could take it upon themselves to champion the cause of finding ways to cut costs and re-open the airport after a couple years.

Tim Vaughn has a life-long connection to the airport. His father Milo Vaughn was part of the flying club back in the 1960s that included people like Bob Morstad and Jerry Muckala, which basically got the airport started.

Milo managed the airport and Tim took over the job after Milo passed away.

"My personal opinion is I hate to see it closed," Vaughn said Tuesday. "We've lost way too much in this community over the last few years. It's just another nail in the coffin."

Following the one and a half hour hearing, councilman Bill Warner made the motion to close the airport on a temporary 2-year basis. Rankka seconded, and the motion carried.

(More on the airport and other City Council business in next week's Herald.)