Air service unlikely

City Council rejects management proposal, will go DIY at airport

The idea that Chico will regain passenger air service anytime soon flew out the window Tuesday evening, when the City Council voted not to contract with a professional airport management group, AvPORTS.

Earlier this year the city authorized paying Washington, D.C.-based AvPORTS $200,000 to examine the airport and develop a strategic plan for improving it and attracting regular airline service. Last month the company presented its proposal to the Airport Commission, which scrutinized it for three hours before voting, 3-1, not to recommend adoption.

Initially AvPORTS had sought $180,000 annually to manage the airport, a 10-year commitment and a $50,000 “success fee” if it landed commercial air service. Its revised proposal Tuesday night (Nov. 17) was for $120,000 a year for five years and an additional $25,000 annually if the city wanted it to look for an airline, a dramatic reduction in cost, risk and ambition.

However, the city would be responsible for hiring a full-time airport manager and two other staff members. As several council members and speakers noted, this would put AvPORTS in the position of managing the manager. As former Councilman (and current county Supervisor) Larry Wahl put it, “There is no reason to have an expensive middle man.”

The airport has been without professional management for many years, with the job falling to the city manager. As a result of this benign neglect, the airport has been operating at an annual loss, due in part, according to AvPORTS’ report, to a failure to adjust lease holdings to modern market values and attract new tenants.

A total of 13 people spoke to the issue, and nearly all recommended rejecting the AvPORTS proposal. They believed the city could hire a professional manager and use local real-estate agents to handle its leases.

“AvPORTS is excellent when it comes to making presentations,” said former Airport Commissioner Norm Rosene, “but there’s nothing really new in this proposal. … Its strategies are no different than ones we’ve been talking about for many years.”

Not everyone was ready to give up on commercial air service, however. Katie Simmons, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, said an unmet need for local air service would remain, and local businesses would suffer as a result. “I hope this is not the end of the discussion,” she said. “We’re operating from a position of scarcity, but other airports’ success is based on investment,” she argued.

Former Mayor and Airport Commissioner Karl Ory proposed that a bond measure be put on the ballot targeting airport improvements, but to be used only if airline service is restored. “I’m disheartened that we’re so easily giving up on that airfield,” he said.

Mayor Mark Sorensen noted, however, that the airline industry is pulling out of small markets everywhere. “Either we can fill the seats or we can’t fill the seats,” he said. “We need to provide strong, compelling general-aviation services” before we can attract an airline.

The council voted unanimously to reject the AvPORTS proposal and asked City Manager Mark Orme to come up with alternatives.

In other council news: New developments on the marijuana front are in the works. When Andrew Merkel, a medical marijuana advocate, asked the council to agendize a discussion of the city’s response to new state laws governing medical marijuana, the council readily agreed to do so.

In fact, said City Manager Mark Orme, the city’s executive team has been looking into the new laws and will present its finding to the council when the discussion occurs.

The council also heard a request from Councilwoman Tami Ritter that something be done to provide public restrooms for those who don’t have access to them (read: the homeless). People are defecating in doorways, she said, creating “a public health nuisance, if not a public health hazard. … We can’t cite people for going to the bathroom if we don’t provide bathrooms for them to use,” she said. The council directed staff to come up with options and bring them to the Internal Affairs Committee.

Finally, the council voted unanimously to move toward forming a groundwater sustainability agency in tandem with Butte County and the other cities in the county, pursuant to passage of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Doing so will give the city more clout when it comes to protecting its groundwater, said Erik Gustafson, Public Works director for Operations and Maintenance.