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Airport lands in middle of Paonia budget talks

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia-based pilot Ethel Leslie greets Don Geddes, who flew in from Crawford Airport Saturday during a fly-in/pancake breakfast hosted by the North Fork Valley Airport near Paonia. The Town of Paonia owns 75 percent of the Paonia airpo

As the Town of Paonia grapples with cash shortages caused by years of overspending and theft of more than a half million dollars in cash, the board of trustees is considering ways to raise capital. Under consideration is liquidation of assets, including the town's 75 percent ownership in the North Fork Valley Airport.

During a Sept. 8 public discussion on the 2014 audit, the airport was described as a big asset that produces no revenue, is subsidized by taxpayers, and is used by only a few citizens.

"It is hard to understand why we would have such a significant asset that does not produce decent income," said mayor pro tem Charles Stewart, who called it "a pretty unique asset of the town."

A dollar figure has yet to be determined, but the value of the airport isn't seen just in dollars by its proponents.

"I believe the airport is a valuable asset to the community," said Paonia resident Neil Schwieterman, a pilot, plane owner and member of the Colorado Pilots Association. Schwieterman is also the mayor of Paonia. "I have a vested interest" in the airport, said Schwieterman. "I can't vote, but I can be part of the discussion."

Schwieterman called his interest in flying a lifestyle choice and that like himself, many of the airport's users aren't wealthy. They simply choose to spend their disposable income on aviation-related activities rather than on other toys or expensive vehicles. He said his plane, which he co-owns, cost less than most new cars.

He also maintains that the airport benefits the local economy. The Colorado Department of Transportation's Division of Aeronautics estimates its annual economic impact to the local economy at about $54,000; when the multiplier effect -- which posits that injections of extra income into communities leads to increased spending -- is factored in, that impact comes closer to $239,000.

"There are a lot of people who would not be here if it weren't for the airport," said Larry Garrett, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, commercial pilot, flight instructor, mechanic and aircraft inspector who found Paonia after landing at the airport five years ago and spending a day in town. A year later he bought a home in Paonia. His wife, Ethel Leslie, is also a pilot. "This is a sanctuary for a lot of people," said Garrett.

The airport averages about 77 flights a week, half of which are generated locally, according to the website AirNav. In 2012 the airport was designated as the outstanding general aviation airport in the state by the Colorado Pilots Association. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association estimates that 65 percent of general aviation flights involve business and public service matters that can't be accommodated by commercial flight.

The facility offers 24-hour fuel, hangars and tie downs, fight instruction, annual aircraft inspection, mechanical services, glider and banner tow services and more are also available. Visitors flying in can drive the courtesy car to town for meals, and purchase cases of wine or boxes of locally-grown produce. "The courtesy car is a real magnet for pilots," said Garrett.

Delta County owns the remaining 25 percent of the airport. In the 1980s, said Schwieterman, the town owned and operated the airport and offered a share to local towns and the county. The county was the only one to accept the offer, and now oversees management of the facility and pays for maintenance and insurance.

The facility is also utilized by Flight for Life and West Elk Mountain Rescue, and as a staging ground for fighting fires. The mines and local ranchers lease hangars and use the airport to help support their businesses.

Some of its lesser-known uses include seismic monitoring, oil and gas exploration, and LiDAR surveys.

The airport was established in May, 1947, on the roughly 160-acre mesa with 360-degree views of Grand Mesa, the Gunnison River canyons and the West Elks. "It's a priceless asset for the community," said manager Mike Clawson, whose parents managed the airport for 30 years before him. He compares it to having a "big fire truck. If it never moves, that's great, but if we need it we have it."

Because it lacks water, the mesa can't support agriculture, but its north-south orientation and other factors make it ideal for an airport, say pilots, who compare landing on the narrow mesa to landing on an aircraft carrier, especially at night when only runway lights are visible.

About 20 planes, one helicopter and two Ultralight planes are currently based at the facility. The county owns one of the 13 existing hangars. The rest are leased and generating property taxes, said Clawson. The few remaining vacant hangar lots are already spoken for.

Under a 2009 agreement, the town and the county are obligated to pay their respective cost share of capital improvements remaining after grants, which the county oversees, and other funding contributions. A $400,000 state grant and $44,000 matching funds from the county paid for a recent paving of the 4,500-foot long, 60-foot wide runway and associated lighting project that allows pilots flying after dark to activate the lights on approach.

The county and the town share $10,000 annual revenue from the lease of a private cell tower. The town has on reserve $33,000 from that income set aside for its share of a planned repaving project for the taxiway and parking area, scheduled for 2016. The $500,000 project will be mostly funded by a state aeronautics grant, said Clawson.

While the town has made no decisions on the fate of the airport and has yet to place it on an agenda, airport supporters worry about its future, since no one knows who potential buyers might be.

"That's the unknown," said pilot and former trustee Bill Brunner, who has been following the town's budget talks and staunchly defending the airport at recent public meetings.

Schwieterman noted that the county is liable for grant paybacks if use of the facility changes. "If we're going to talk about selling the airport, all those issues need to be addressed."

The town has stated that a decision isn't likely to be made in the near future and that any public discussion will likely be lengthy.

Garrett, who also chairs the Delta County Airport Advisory Board that keeps county commissioners informed of its status, said some of the trustees have never been to the airport, and some of the town's residents don't even know it exists. They need to come out for a visit, said Garrett. "If they don't know what's here, they don't understand the value."

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