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Springfield to continue spending on airport tower contract

The city will likely spend another approximately $275,000 to operate the air traffic control for another year at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, but will also complete a cost benefit analysis to forecast future economic impact at the airport.

City leaders believe the tower will help draw drone businesses and a potential new mission to the base, but have doubts about how long it can be funded.

“The reality is we can’t keep doing this forever unless we get a flying operation that comes in there to justify the expenditure,” said Mayor Warren Copeland. “We need to take a look at this before we approve it again.”

If the contract is renewed, the city will have spent $1.3 million — including approximately $758,000 in city money and $545,000 in grant money — to keep the tower operational since 2011.

The city began operations that year after the Springfield Air National Guard Base changed its mission to remotely flying unmanned Predators and stopped staffing the tower. The Air National Guard also analyzes data for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center from the base.

The military spent more than $31 million on upgrades at the base that included a new air traffic control tower, fire station and renovated hangar and taxiway before the Base Realignment and Closure process realigned the base in 2005 and stripped it of the F-16 mission.

Funding for the tower comes from the city’s airport fund, but some expenses are subsidized through the general fund, according to finance director Mark Beckdahl.

“When we start cutting into the general fund, we’re into money we’ve got to be using for something else,” Copeland said.

Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and economic development director, said the study will focus on the potential uses which could come with future business and military endeavors at the airport and the testing range, as well as the overall market. The study also will examine future job potential and investments at the airport.

“There’s revenue potential there, I just need to quantify that for the commissioners and show how long it could take to pay the major expenses at the tower,” Franzen said.

Copeland said if the project can’t generate any revenue, “we can’t afford to keep doing it” much longer.”

“We always saw this as a short-term solution,” Copeland said. “We still hope we can find a way to make it work financially.”

Commissioner Dan Martin said he’d like to see some outside partners help with maintaining the infrastructure at the airport.

“It does have potential as a regional amenity,” Martin said. “It’s important that we seek out folks who value that and can help us maintain it.”

City commissioners will likely vote Aug. 20 on two air traffic control related items — a contract with Dynamic Services Inc. for about $231,000 for tower operation services and a contract with Vaisala Inc. for equipment maintenance services for about $44,000. The city agreed to similar contracts last year which expire next month.

The tower is needed for operation of both general aviation and businesses located at the airport, including SpectraJet and Champion City Flight School among others. The city also hopes to attract the unmanned area vehicle industry, or UAVs, to the airport and cannot do it without active air traffic controllers watching the airspace.

“In order to have a (Certificate of Authorization), like we do with Sinclair and the Army National Guard, an active tower is critical to that process,” Franzen said.

The city also provides fire services, and air field and grounds maintenance on the 1,800-acre complex. If tower operations ceased, the city would lose its Part 139 certificate, which allows nine- to 30-passenger aircraft to fly out of the airport.

The city is also hoping to attract future military missions to the base, including a training mission for the 445th Airlift Wing Air Force Reserve at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but are waiting for the government to make a decision on the site. The 445th Airlift flies C-17 cargo transport planes, which currently trains for assault landings out-of-state. Local representatives believe moving the mission to Springfield would save on fuel costs, despite the need to build a new runway at the base.

“It was thought to best position ourselves for those missions that we keep the tower active,” Franzen said. “It’s much easier to sell your capability if it’s an existing capability as opposed to saying ‘We could have this capability if.’ It just weakens your argument on all fronts.”

The city is also working to help Ohio be selected by the Federal Aviation Administration as a testing site for UAVs. The FAA began the process early in 2012 and a decision is expected to be made by the end of the year. The city also wants to build a $2.3 million hangar complex at its airport to attract drone developers.

In June, the Ohio Department of Transportation selected the Nextedge Applied Research and Technology Park along U.S. 40 in Springfield to house the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aerial Systems Center and Test Complex. The office space will serve as as the base of operations for Ohio and Indiana’s joint effort to become a test site for unmanned aerial systems.

Copeland said the placing of the UAS headquarters in Springfield is “a step in the right direction.”

“It’s hopeful, but it doesn’t produce anything yet,” Copeland said.

Franzen said the city is a “committed partner” for the regional and state UAS effort, but is also concerned about future revenues given recent funding cuts from the state.

“We need to constantly reevaluate what are the opportunities for business growth related to this activity and investment,” Franzen said.

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