Port considering purchase of airport
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Asking price is difference in millions between parish and port
By KEVIN CHIRI
Editor and Publisher
LAPLACE – Who is best suited to make the most out of the St. John Airport?
That could be the multi-million dollar question.
However the problem might be that St. John Parish, and the Port of South Louisiana, see that as a different number of millions.
Discussions have been off-and-on between the parish and the port about the airport being sold to the Port of South Louisiana.
Port Executive Director Joel Chaisson believes the port is better suited to run the airport, and make the most of it, since his staff could devote more time to the operation.
“The port wants to assist the parish to see the airport achieve its true potential, and one of the big things to help that happen is the runway extension,” Chaisson said. “But the parish has so many other priorities they have to be concerned with, and I think that has kept them from putting the time into getting this done. I know we would devote more time to the extension prospect.”
Both Chaisson and St. John Chief Administrative Officer Natalie Robottom agree that the runway extension is a vital addition to the airport to bring in more economic development. Not only would it allow current businesses in St. John to use the airport more, but it would entice new businesses to come here.
However, getting the port to take over the airport appears to be a big challenge, since the port would have to purchase the airport. How much the price tag is seems to be where the stumbling block may be.
While both Robottom and Chaisson say they are still awaiting information from studies to determine the true value of the airport, the figures tossed out by either official are not very close.
“I would think the airport is worth a minimum of $5 million. You have to consider all the money we’ve put into it, and the grant money we’ve obtained for the airport. It’s quite an investment we have there,” Robottom said.
Chaisson said his organization is doing an extensive study at this time to determine what the port might offer for the airport. But he laughed when the $5 million figure was suggested to him.
“I would think it would be closer to $1 million,” he said. “But I hate to even say that since we are waiting on more information to determine what kind of offer would be fair. However I think $5 million is pretty high.”
While the port is a not-for-profit agency, the objective of Chaisson’s group is to bring economic growth to the area. The airport could play a big part in that, if managed correctly, he said.
“The question is really which agency is better suited to put a full court press on the state and the FAA to bring an extension of our runway?” Chaisson said. “We have a lot of corporations here right now that would like a bigger runway for their planes, but we can’t accommodate them. And we have some people looking at aviation services relocating here. But we have to have the longer runway.”
The airport has been a point of controversy in some circles since it has lost money for a number of years running.
The 2007 budget projects a loss of $96,510, while the airport was budgeted at losses near $70,000, $111,000 and $83,000 in the three previous years.
Parish President Nickie Monica believes the cost for the parish to fund the airport is well worth it.
“When you consider the economic benefit we get from the airport in many other ways, I don’t think a cost to the parish of $100,000 a year is very much,” Monica said. “It’s well worth it.”
One plus for 2007 is a new company that will offer additional services for bigger planes at the airport, and Robottom said they are in talks for a second fixed base operator there, which would bring in more revenue and reduce the cost to the parish for running the airport.
“I think now is a good time to discuss the possible sale of the airport, since the new fixed base company, and the possibility of others, makes the airport increase in value,” she noted.
The parish used Professional Engineering Consultants to handle the engineering, and obtaining funds from the FAA for projects at the airport. They are the lead agency trying to get a runway extension, and despite Chaisson’s claim that more could be done to facilitate that process, Robottom feels the parish and Professional Engineering are pushing as hard as they can.
“It’s a very complicated process to get the funds for a new runway,” she said. “And I feel like our firm has done all they can to help this happen.”
Meanwhile, Chaisson continues to believe the port would be the best management team for the airport.
“We can run the airport at a break even operation at the very least, and make it a great economic tool for the parish,” he said. “Right now I just don’t think the airport is being utilized to its full potential. However I expect our talks with the parish will accelerate in 2007 about whether we can take over the airport or not.”