Oak Harbor City Council hesitant to support airport plan

The Port of Coupeville’s pursual of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport has hit yet another stumbling block.

The Port of Coupeville’s ongoing pursual of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport has hit yet another stumbling block as Oak Harbor City Council members and a key county commissioner expressed some trepidation this week over potential financial partnerships with the port.

During a regular public meeting Tuesday, the council rejected a draft interlocal agreement that would have allocated $200,000 of city money to the port for the purchase of the airport and related costs, with some council members saying they want to hear from port commissioners about the port’s plans for the property before revisiting the motion.

Council members expressed several concerns about the agreement. Councilmember Bryan Stucky echoed a concern previously expressed by Island County commissioners that the port has yet to present a detailed business plan for the airport or conduct a feasibility study on the property.

Stucky also worried about the possibility of spending $200,000 of city funds on a feasibility study, only for the port to determine that it cannot feasibly maintain the airport and abandon the project. He also pointed out that while the airport is located closer to Oak Harbor than to Coupeville — and outside the port district boundaries — port taxpayers would end up on the hook for future financial liabilities the airport might produce. His concerns were shared by other council members.

City administrator Blaine Oborn spoke in favor of entering the interlocal agreement, encouraging council members to be leaders on this project by firmly committing city funds.

“If the port is brave enough to take on this opportunity, I think we ought to be brave enough to support them,” Oborn said.

Councilmember Shane Hoffmire, who said he is “wildly supportive” of the agreement, made a motion to pass it with an amendment that the city would provide the port with no more than $100,000 up front, and another $100,000 after a feasibility study is completed.

The council voted 4-2 against the motion, with only Hoffmire and Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon voting in favor of it. Council members agreed not to permanently kill the agreement, however; Hizon moved to reconsider the motion after a presentation from the port at a future meeting. Her motion passed unanimously.

Oak Harbor City Council members aren’t the first ones to voice these concerns about the port pursuing a purchase of the airport. In an email to port Commissioner John Mishasek, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson posed a list of questions regarding the port’s plan for operating the airport. She asked about the port’s cost estimates for getting the airport viable, insuring the airport and hiring airport management; how much revenue the port expects the airport to generate; and how the port will cover operating expenses if the revenue from the airport falls short.

“If you don’t know the answers to these questions or you don’t have a realistic idea (which to date has not been provided to the county), you are looking to buy an unknown liability for the port district and potentially the county if you fail,” Johnson wrote in her email.

Johnson reiterated this concern in a public comment at the Oak Harbor City Council’s March 21 meeting.

“I have still not seen the math to know if that will work out,” she said. “There is not a plan that tells us how much it will cost to sustain that airport going forward.”

She told the council members that she would be supportive of any decision they made; she simply wanted to make sure they did not make their decision about the interlocal agreement based on incorrect assumptions about the county’s role in the project.

Johnson also suggested that because the airport is located near Oak Harbor and would be named for the city, it’s possible that any rural economic development funds the county put toward the airport would count toward the city’s share of the funds. Island County commissioners have already expressed a willingness to contribute to the airport purchase, but have been clear that they don’t want the county to own it.

The thought concerned Councilmember Eric Marshall, who said he would be hesitant to potentially tie up the city’s rural economic development funds for the foreseeable future.

Port Commissioner David Day told his fellow port board members in their meeting the next day that Johnson was “basically holding the (rural economic development) funds hostage.”

Port personnel maintain that the type of extensive business plan their potential partner agencies are asking for is not possible to deliver at this time. Port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos said a plan for a small business can be done quickly, but a plan for an airport is a larger ballgame requiring a professional company. A full feasibility study and comprehensive plan would take at least a year to accomplish and cost around $300,000.

“It is unrealistic to expect a business plan on an airport in just a few weeks,” Michalopoulos told the News-Times. “It would not be complete, and it would not be thorough.”

Johnson said the county offered the port $100,000 toward a feasibility study a year ago, but the port never asked for it.

Mishasek told the News-Times that the port is prepared to move forward with its plan to purchase the airport, even without the financial assistance of the county or the city of Oak Harbor, though of course port officials still hope the other agencies will offer their support as they will all be beneficiaries of a viable airport.

“We would not have told our attorney to draft a proposal to buy the property if we felt like we wouldn’t be able to write the check,” Mishasek said.

During its March 22 meeting, the port board of commissioners rescinded and reissued a motion to receive an assignment for Geri Morgan’s first right of refusal on the property, amending it to include a defense and indemnification clause. Mishasek said that upon receiving Morgan’s right, the port will have 60 days to complete an inspection of the property and determine whether it wants to go through with the purchase. Morgan declined to comment on the agreement.

A private buyer, North Whidbey resident Robert DeLaurentis, has made an offer on the port and told the News-Times last month that he has feasibility studies on the property underway, but he could not be reached for an update before press time.

County Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who represents Central and South Whidbey, said that the county is still willing to be a financial partner to the port. As a commissioner, she said, it is her job to envision what would be best for the county for years to come. Bacon said she believes the airport coming under public ownership would benefit all North and Central Whidbey residents, not just Oak Harbor residents.

“I don’t believe that it’s going to benefit Oak Harbor more than Coupeville,” she said, adding that she hopes the port has fulfilled its responsibility to reach out to taxpayers in the port district who may be concerned.