TRAVERSE CITY — Airport authorities are the way to go, according to an advisory committee tasked with weighing Cherry Capital Airport’s future governance.
That committee, formed by the Northwest Regional Airport Commission and Grand Traverse and Leelanau county authorities, met one more time Tuesday before getting a final report. Consultant Steven Baldwin said he’ll summarize a five-month discussion on the pros and cons of the airport’s current governance and whether forming an authority is the right move.
Committee members think so, unanimously agreeing in a straw poll at their previous meeting that they want to pursue forming an authority. So too do airport business partners and those in charge of tourism and economic development organizations.
TraverseConnect CEO Warren Call said the move helps better position the Traverse City region to bring in what people want: more family-sustaining jobs.
“And for that reason, I think it’s important that we have an extremely competitive, nimble, well-run airport, and to the points that have been made, the way to do that is a regionally focused authority that takes into account that Traverse City and this airport are a hub of the broader region and we’re all in this together to promote economic sustainability,” he said.
Others spoke in favor of the move, including Transportation Security Administration Regional Federal Security Director Roger Duboc, who said Grand Rapids’ airport did the same and it’s worked well for them. So too did Peter Wish, a part-time city resident and Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority chairman, and AvFlight Vice President Joe Meszarus.
But some commenters worried about the airport authority’s increased power — an authority could approve its own decisions without having to go to either Grand Traverse or Leelanau county commissioners, and Baldwin told Traverse City Planner Russ Soyring an airport authority has its own zoning rules.
Gretchen Iorio said an airport authority would have more power over issues like eminent domain — a legal mechanism to take land — development of airport land and cutting trees.
“That affects all of us since the airport lies in the center of our urban community,” she said.
The last subject remains a sore one for some who distrust airport officials’ rationale behind March tree cuttings on airport property. City resident Melanie Jones asked for a plain-language explanation — subcommittee member Doug DeYoung offered to talk with her afterward.
Audience members also asked why Grand Traverse County Commissioner Betsy Coffia’s request to serve on the subcommittee was rebuffed — county board Chairman Rob Hentschel said Coffia’s schedule kept her from making the meetings.
Coffia didn’t respond to a message sent Tuesday.
Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties both own Cherry Capital Airport, and both county commissions appoint members to the seven-seat NRAC — Grand Traverse leaders appoint five and Leelanau two. NRAC members chafed under the requirement to seek final approval from both county boards — the two boards would have to approve the change to an authority.
There’s more behind the subcommittee’s charge, member Mike Coco said. The commission, which dates back to 1971, has a 50-year lease with the two counties that own the airport — Baldwin said it’s considerably out of date and is holding back airport authorities from entering into long-term leases.
Enter Public Act 95, which in 2015 opened up forming airport commissions to more communities.
Baldwin said the law imposes certain requirements on the airport authority’s makeup, including at least one member from outside the region.
Members of the local legislature appoint airport authority members, according to the law. These boards of five to nine people can’t have more than 45 percent elected officials, local government employees aren’t eligible and members should have relevant experience, the law reads.
Coco said the airport commission needs to act whether it opts to form an authority or not. The airport will continue to be a public entity and a regional asset, but its current setup has issues that need correcting.
Airport Executive Director Kevin Klein said the committee will get Steven Baldwin Associates’ final report in October. That’s when they could vote on a resolution to urge the airport commission to pursue transitioning to an authority — Baldwin said it’s a multi-step process that could wrap in December 2020 at the earliest if everyone approves, including the Federal Aviation Administration.
City resident Ted Iorio said there’s no us-versus-them between airport officials and the public, but the public needs to be a part of the process.
“The airport is a wonderful asset, but it has to be done with the cooperation of the people,” he said.