Why the Portage County airport has $523,059 in debt

The Portage County Board of Commissioners is considering a plan to take over the county airport. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

The Portage County airport owes over $500,000 in debt, it needs critical repairs worth at least that much, and there’s no plan to cover these expenses.

County commissioners started to address this problem last year, initiating a process to take over the airport. This would have involved dissolving the independent board that oversees the airport and hiring a manager to assume control on behalf of the county government.

But when they posted the manager job, no one applied.

Now, with the airport’s debt only set to rise, the commissioners are renewing their effort by seeking a consultant to evaluate the airport’s management, recommend an alternative management structure, and examine the airport’s staffing needs. 

The commissioners discussed the applicants during their April 5 regular meeting, and will interview Steven Baldwin Associates, based in Albany, New York, and Colorado-based Aviation Management Consulting Group for the contract.

The commissioners hope hiring a consultant will provide them with enough data to make a decision.

The airport currently owes the Portage County government $523,059, said County Auditor Janet Esposito. Additionally, the airport has received millions in grants and loans from the Federal Aviation Administration that would have to be paid back if the airport ceases to exist, Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said.

“We can’t afford to let them go under,” Commissioner Vicki Kline said. “We can’t afford to pay that FAA money back. Our hopes are it could be a valuable asset to Portage County if it is done correctly.”

Today, the airport mostly caters to recreational pilots, but there are some local corporations that also use the airstrip, such as Geis Companies in Streetsboro, Godfrey & Wing in Aurora, Machine Tek Systems in Garrettsville and Akron-based Woodbine Aviation, airport officials said.

Private instructors train student pilots, National Guard helicopters conduct training maneuvers, and Kent State flight instructors take advantage of instrument approaches that Kent State’s Stow facility lacks, said Portage County Regional Airport Authority President Homer Lucas.

The airport authority is audited every other year and has a clean bill of health, Lucas said. He provided the state’s 2016/2017 audit, which found only minor errors.

“Excluding the county loan, we run pretty much break even all the time, or less,” he said. 

But hefty expenses have compounded over the years. Paving the runway cost $832,923 in 2016 and 2017, and was done with help from FAA and ODOT grants. To secure the funds, airport leadership kicked in $61,258.

And there are more expenses on the horizon. The airport needs to improve its taxiways, which haven’t been paved in over a decade, at an estimated $500,000 price tag.

With some $30,000 on hand and no deadline for paying back the loans, Lucas said the airport authority is focusing on daily operations, projects and repairs. Experience has taught the board members to prioritize where the money flows: the runway first, taxiways second, accessways third and the entrance road last.

How the airport got into so much debt

Much like a fire department, the airport survives on taxpayer dollars and grants that require matching funds, Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said. A quasi-public entity, it is owned by the Portage County Regional Airport Authority, which is guided by an eight-member Board of Trustees.

That board, now headed by Lucas, authorized significant expenditures in the 1980s when the airport authority was anticipating a runway expansion to attract larger aircraft. The expansion never happened, but the airport — and the county commissioners as co-signers — was left with debt problems that have persisted.

Since then, the facility has operated on a shoestring budget, with board members repairing structures themselves and no way to repay its county debts, Christian-Bennett said.

In December 2019, the airport authority agreed to repay the county $425,237 in “combined total outstanding loans,” including $70,000 for a fuel tank replacement. This loan was necessary because one of the airport’s fuel tanks was damaged, Lucas said.

The trustees soon learned the fuel unit didn’t measure up to previously sanctioned specs, which led to a 2021 loan. 

In February 2021, the county authorized a $97,822 loan to cover past due bills and property taxes for the first half of 2020, according to documents forwarded to the auditor’s office. 

Specifically, Lucas said the loan covered fuel tank overruns, “major repairs” to the airport’s tractor, snowplowing and lawn mowing equipment that needed attention, and a $25,000 bill to repair the runway lights.

The auditor’s documents noted that the county had already consolidated several loans and that the airport authority’s debt load totalled $527,822, to be repaid at “anytime throughout the year,” with balances simply rolling over to the next year.

“When stuff like that occurs, we’re in trouble because we just don’t have big amounts that we can reserve for those kinds of repairs,” Lucas said. “Those things are expenses that we don’t budget for and don’t really have money for, so those are things that the county helped us with.”

According to the airport authority’s 2022 budget, airport revenue comes from hangar and land leases, private user fees, fuel sales, and business user fees. Grants, when there are any, add to the bottom line.

Past financial reports show the airport is indeed living within its means:

  • The airport’s 2022 financial report lists $121,600 in income and $121,530 in expenses, including $31,071 to repay a hangar loan. 
  • The 2021 financial report showed $220,682 in revenue and $199,832 in expenses. 
  • The airport’s 2020 financial report totaled $133,073 in revenue and $158,027 in expenses. 
  • In 2019, the airport’s operating revenue totaled $129,875 and $128,442 in expenses.

But when big expenses come up, there’s no room to spare.

What ‘new management’ would mean

Though he insists the airport is fiscally responsible, Lucas isn’t about to stand in the way of a county takeover.

He believes the board of trustees would remain intact, operating in an advisory capacity. He and Vice President Mark Atwood envision growing the facility and transforming it into an economic engine for the entire county.

But a county takeover could well affect a 50-year management agreement the board signed with Portage Flight Center, a private company owned by Dick Bonner, in 1999.

“The Flight Center is operated totally [for] their own profit,” Lucas said. “If the Flight Center had to do something, like being open on Saturdays and Sundays to allow corporate aircraft to be serviced, unless it was profitable, they wouldn’t do it.”

Though it’s unclear whether Portage Flight Center would be willing to operate on weekends, doing so could attract new businesses, Lucas said, especially with the Turnpike Commerce Center opening nearby.

“That would provide some synergy for the county where they’re able to have the airport go in the direction that fits the county’s plan for their overall goals,” Lucas said.

The airport authority has other ideas in mind, too, from a new flight training program to reviving the old runway expansion project.

“We have some individuals doing training, but imagine if we had a flight training program here, it sort of breeds pilots,” he said. “They turn around and buy airplanes, and they need a hangar to put them in, and it becomes a circle that ends up sustaining the airport and keeping new people out here, flying airplanes, and experiencing the thrill of it.”

Despite public outcry that at least contributed to plans being scrapped years ago (the FAA also wasn’t on board), the airport authority would still like to extend the airport’s sole runway to accommodate corporate airplanes.

“We’re not talking about big airplanes like passenger jets,” Atwood said. “We’re just talking about larger twin-engine aircraft that require a larger runway to safely take off and land. Most recreational aircraft seat two to four people. I’m talking about aircraft that could seat six to eight people.”

Being able to get corporate folks up and away quickly could translate to significant savings.

“If you’re in a corporation, and you have your own aircraft that’s staged 20 minutes from where your business is, you can get to that aircraft and in two hours be a significant distance away from here,” Lucas said. “It really facilitates doing business in a timely fashion and scheduling is at your option, so it’s a lot better than trying to load four engineers into a commercial plane leaving out of Akron-Canton or Cleveland. It’s a far better way to do it, and it’s a lot more opportunities for business.”

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

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