An airport mega-project in Portage County? Local officials were caught off guard

A view of Shalersville, looking north from I-80, the proposed site of a major airport.

State Rep. Gail Pavliga has introduced legislation to construct a major airport and transportation hub north of Ravenna, with multiple high-speed rail lines connecting to cities throughout Northeast Ohio.

House Bill 610, which is now in the House Transportation and Public Safety Committee, came as a surprise to residents and even several elected officials, who said they were not consulted about the idea before it was introduced April 5. 

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Portage County Commissioner Tony Badalamenti said in an interview. “And being a county official, it makes less sense to me to see somebody saying these things, and it’s just like, who are you guys talking to? Who wrote it? And where are you coming up with these ideas?”

Pavliga did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and there is no mention of HB 610 on her government web page. A staffer told The Portager in a brief phone conversation that the bill is meant to assess whether such an airport is necessary.

But that’s not what the legislation actually says.

State Rep. Gail Pavliga

HB 610 creates a new “Major Air Hub Council” and instructs it to “take all actions necessary to construct two commercial service airports, either or both of which may be international airports.”

One of them would be in Fayette County, between Dayton and Chillicothe. The other would be “immediately north of I-80 in the vicinity … of Ravenna” — presumably the northeast corner of Shalersville, just south of the Village of Mantua.

The council would also construct a high-speed rail network connecting the Portage County airport to new transportation hubs in Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown. During a later phase of the project, if funds permit, those northern hubs would also connect to each other and to others in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton. 

The legislation does not authorize funding. Instead, the council would be directed to obtain contracts with airlines and issue bonds against future revenue.

“This is common sense legislation that raises almost zero risk to the taxpayers,” said Mike Loychik, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill representing parts of Trumbull County, in a press release.

He said the legislation will spur business and create jobs but did not explain how a major infrastructure project that could cost tens of billions of dollars could be virtually risk free.

Read the full text of the bill

Read a plain-English explanation of the bill by the Legislative Budget Office

Local officials in the dark

None of the Portage County commissioners and township trustees directly impacted by this bill were consulted before Pavliga and her colleagues introduced it.

Shalersville Trustee John Kline, whose township appears targeted for the massive installation, said he read about it for the first time in the news. He declined to comment on any aspect of the bill.

Badalamenti said such an ambitious project would take decades to complete and cost billions of dollars, yet the whole idea was news to commissioners.

“It doesn’t make any sense to us because we haven’t been involved in one iota of this information at all,” he said. “Not one commissioner that I know of in Portage County had any clue about any of this information. None of us has heard anything about this.”

Badalamenti said he had thought the whole idea was speculative, “so until somebody calls us and tells me there’s going to be a new hub in Portage County, my answer would still be, ‘Where?’”

County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett also said the bill came as a surprise and stated her intent to speak with Pavliga about it.

“[Pavliga] did not write this bill,” said Kathleen Clyde, a former state representative, county commissioner and Pavliga’s likely opponent once district maps are finalized. “This bill was given to her by somebody who had it before. She must have thought it was a good idea and was willing to introduce it.”

Though Clyde said she supports ideas and targeted investments that could improve the local economy, she questioned multiple aspects of HB 610.

“Trying to be respectful of the representative, I think this idea definitely needs further exploration,” she said. “That includes drilling down on whether our region can support another international airport. We have hubs that are in close proximity to Portage County, Akron, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. This kind of very large taxpayer investment is something that needs a lot of study and collaboration. It doesn’t seem like that has happened here.”

Former State Rep. Randi Clites, who lost her 2020 bid for reelection to Pavliga, alleged that HB 610 is one of many Pavliga has introduced without evident preparation. (Again, The Portager could not ask Pavliga’s response because she did not respond to requests for an interview.)

“Before the introduction of a bill like this there’s community gatherings to talk about this big of an issue, so I wonder who has Rep. Pavliga passed this idea through? Where did she get the idea for this bill? What community support is there?” Clites asked.

Historical precedent

Clyde recalls that Republican State Rep. Jim Butler floated a similar bill in 2017, which also called for two airports in Portage and Fayette counties. Clyde said the bill had no support and did not move forward.

At the time, Butler touted the idea as being good for big business at a time when businesses were relocating to cities that had major hub airports. His bill did not include high-speed rail, but he did put a $10-15 billion price tag on the project, with funding coming from airport bonds and federal funds.

But this kind of idea seems to go back even further than that.

Back in the 1960s, the late entrepreneur Burton Morgan had dreams of developing an international airport at the Ravenna Arsenal. 

Morgan envisioned “the world’s largest air terminal and a foreign trade zone,” wrote Record-Courier Editor Roger Di Paolo in a 2015 column about the idea.

After the Vietnam War put the Ravenna Arsenal back to use, Morgan spent nearly $1 million on 1,500 acres of farmland in Freedom Township, intending to build his airport “between the arsenal, the turnpike, and state Route 14,” Di Paolo wrote.

Nothing came of that, so Morgan eyed a 2,100-acre site he owned in Shalersville, Freedom and Ravenna townships to build an industrial exposition center.

“An additional 20,000 acres would be acquired for the international jetport and duty-free industrial zone,” Di Paolo wrote.

Amid public outcry from residents opposed to his plans, “Morgan pulled the plug on his proposal, saying he would never go where he wasn’t wanted,” Di Paolo wrote.

Morgan died in 2003 without an airport to his name, but the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation, named for his wife, carried on to champion free enterprise and mental health, respectively.

The land went to the two foundations, which worked with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the Ohio EPA and the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund to create a preserve. In 2009, the Portage Park District acquired 504 acres on state Route 44 in Shalersville, added another 40 acres, and the result was Morgan Park, Director Chris Craycroft said.

Could an airport really come to Portage County?

It’s not clear whether this bill, unlike its predecessor, has any meaningful support in Columbus. Pavliga’s staffer seemed to downplay the bill, suggesting it was merely designed to assess Ohio’s “airline infrastructure” and determine if the airports and rail lines are necessary. 

A spokesperson for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport declined to comment, and Akron-Canton Airport could not be reached. No airlines have come out as backers of the idea.

Even if the bill were to pass, no construction could start until the council has contracted with at least one airline company and sufficient construction funds have been secured, the bill states.

Among Clyde’s questions are whether aviation experts support the legislation, if it’s driven by air travel needs or by politics, and where the money will come from. Clyde said HB 610’s language seems to indicate that the airlines are going to pay for both projects, along with taxpayer dollars in the form of bonds.

“This definitely seems pretty half baked,” Clyde said. “The kind of work that needs to be done in the community and the type of collaboration that needs to be done at all levels to have a project like this… there just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that kind of work being done.”

To the south, Rep. Mark Johnson, a Republican whose 92nd district includes Fayette County, is not listed as a co-sponsor. His office did not respond to The Portager’s request for comment.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

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