Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Bill Ward looked at the numbers in front of him and frowned.
During the Port’s June 17 board of commissioners meeting, Ward and fellow commissioners Jon Spencer and Larry Keister discussed rate increases for the Port’s airport and marina. Ward noted that, while the financial projections for the marina looked good, the financial projections for Grove Field looked… not so good.
“This is a good example of how business activities help us,” Ward said. “In the case of the marina, we’ve got Riverside Marines rental income cranked in there, and we provide a customer base for Riverside Marines. If we could, in fact, develop airport-related activities at the airport, we’d get the same sort of a situation. We’d see our revenues improve.”
Increasing the number of businesses at or around Grove Field is a central focus of the airport development plan Spencer presented to the other commissioners earlier this year.
“If you really want to increase revenue at the airport, find ways to get more activity. That would be a great step,” Spencer said at the June 17 meeting. “It is a business unto itself running an airport, and you want as many businesses as you can to support it. You need that revenue.”
The commissioners, who later agreed to increase hangar rates by 4 percent for next year, want to add businesses at the airport; as far as they’re concerned, it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” But the “when” is probably not going to be anytime soon, for several reasons.
The No. 1 reason is money. Right now, the Port is focusing on its waterfront development project, which will limit the agency’s spending capacity on other projects for the next few years.
“(Spencer) is on the right track with developing airport-related retail businesses, and we do own land up there that we could develop,” Keister said, “but the problem is we’ve got land (on the waterfront) that needs to be developed (and) that will be a bigger return for investment to the community than the airport. But as soon as (the waterfront) is up and running, we’ll move to the airport. It will get full attention.”
In 2018, the Port contracted with Airport Business Solutions (ABS), a North Carolina-based aviation evaluation and consulting service, to provide a comprehensive business plan for Grove Field, which has 77 hangars and 14 tie-downs available to lease.
The 120-page report, dated Oct. 8, 2018, concluded by recommending that the Port seek full federal and state funding to “make the airport a much more viable entity in the long term.”
“It is an airport with considerable potential, but one that may wither and die if improvements are not made immediately,” ABS consultants stated in their final report to the Port.
The Port has been hesitant to seek federal funding because doing so would require it to follow Federal Aviation Association guidelines.
“The Port would lose control of how the airport is operated and managed,” Keister told the Post-Record earlier this year. “Accepting federal funding would lock us into a long-term financial commitment, and the Port is not in a good spot to make that commitment.”
Room to grow
The first step toward airport business development is the construction or acquisition of facilities that can house companies, according to Spencer. That’s why he was “super excited” after the commissioners voted to approve the purchase of a 4-acre lot adjacent to Port-owned property near Grove Field for $500,000 during their Aug. 5 meeting.
The property, currently owned by Sally Luce, includes a house, mobile home, airplane hangar and outbuildings, and “will fit right into what the future of the field will be,” Keister said.
“That site has just innumerable possibilities,” Spencer said. “No matter what we do with the airport — as far as runway orientation or any changes that we make or not make — that spot will probably never be touched, so we could put almost anything on it today without worrying about future changes.”
“It’s a prime spot for future development, and it ties in with property that the Port already owns,” The Port’s chief executive officer, David Ripp, said. “It could be used for commercial development, or it could be light industrial, or it could be some type of airport use. It could be a restaurant. It could be almost anything.”
The Port has about 10 acres of available land at Grove Field for development, so space won’t be a problem for future business development. But there would be other issues to contend with, Spencer said.
“The first is a lack of infrastructure,” he explained. “(Grove Field is) on a well and on city water. The water doesn’t have enough pressure to support sprinkler systems, so we rely on the well to cover that. But the well covers the sprinklers we have. It doesn’t have the capacity for more. Building a commercial building is problematic from that perspective, and we don’t have sewer out here, so anything (we build) would have a new septic system.”
Spencer added that aviation is much different from the Port’s other business ventures.
“It’s its own style of buildings and marketing and everything else,” Spencer said of the aviation-related business development industry. “It’s not an area that the Port has a lot of expertise in.”
In order for the Port to develop more businesses at the airport, some of the Grove Field land will have to be rezoned. The county currently has jurisdiction over that land, but some Port officials said they would rather wait for that land to be annexed into the city of Camas, because they believe working with the county may be more difficult.
“Annexation will give us the zoning that we need,” Keister said. “If we go through the county, they won’t do it. It will be easier for us to wait for two years for Camas to consider annexing so we can have (the land) rezoned through the city process. It would go faster than if we went to the county today. It’s amazing, but that’s just the way that it works.”
The Port officials, however, will have virtually no say on when — or if — the annexation process will happen.
“We’re waiting for the county’s 2020 comp plan update, or 2021, whatever it is,” Spencer said. “They will have to decide that there is a reason to bring this land into the city. The city … will need to ask them to please bring this land in, and the reason will be for economic development. The hope is that between the two they will agree to do it. The Port really is a minor player in all of that. We can cajole and we can request, but officially we don’t have a say. Both sides say they’re interested, but we’ll see.”
Possibilities for the future
The ABS report states that “Grove Field has been maintaining the ‘status quo’ of average facilities and minimal services … The current situation severely limits the airport’s full potential due to the lack of other on-site services and facilities to attract larger cabin class piston and small turbine aircraft.”
The Port doesn’t have a full-time airport employee, although maintenance staffer Travis Edwards has been spending more of his time at Grove Field in recent months. The airport also lacks a mechanic’s shop, physical offices and a fixed-based operations facility. The ABS plan recommends that the Port hire a full-time airport manager and invest in a “mini-terminal” to provide the manager with a base of operations.
“You need the FBO and the mechanic’s shop,” Spencer said. “Those two things are necessary to provide the basic services everybody expects. After that, you start putting in ancillary businesses that are just nice to have and build revenue.”
Spencer said although most airports operate at a loss, they have three main revenue streams: building leases, land leases and gas sales.
The ABS report compiled gas sale figures at Grove Field from 2017-18 and concluded that “the annual fuel volumes indicate that during the 10 years posted the level of fuel sold on the field was nearly flat over that time period.” In 2017, Grove Field sold $28,615 worth of fuel.
Currently there are two businesses operating out of a 6,000-square-foot hangar at Grove Field.
FlyCamas Aviation Training Center, owned by Aaron Van Schoiak, offers high- and low-wing aircraft for flight instruction, scenic tours, discovery flights and rentals for personal use. FlyCamas employs three full-time and five part-time instructors and has seen the business grow by more than 300 percent in the past year, according to the Port.
“This version of it has only been here a year,” Spencer said. “There was a former flight school that was operated out of a hangar that (Van Schoiak) bought and expanded. He’s doing three or four times the business that the previous flight school was, which adds to fuel sales, brings more people into the industry, just plain adds activity. It’s one of those things where activity breeds activity. It’s been a huge benefit.”
Cascadia Cubs, owned by Devin Sirois, constructs, repairs and customizes Piper Cub kit aircraft, small planes that are often used for transportation in remote areas of Alaska and Canada.
“Cascadia Cubs is selling to people from all over the world, or at least the nation,” Spencer said. “When they sell a plane, they’re bringing in new people to town, and usually people with money.”
So what other types of businesses could work at Grove Field? Spencer, himself a pilot, has a lot of thoughts on that subject.
“A good way to begin development at Grove may be targeting hangar development for business owners looking for a small office and adjoining hangar space for their aircraft,” Spencer wrote in his report. “This happens in varying degrees at many airports, and brings added vitality to an airport. Examples include Sky Research in Ashland, (Oregon), Packasport luggage racks at Bend (Oregon) Airport and Flightline Composites at Columbia Gorge Regional Airport. These are small business owners who use their aircraft for business.”
According to Spencer’s report, possible airport businesses could include: restaurant, avionics, propeller shop, engine shop, parts sales and distribution, maintenance shop, security and law enforcement, weather monitoring and reporting, humanitarian missions, mapping and surveying, medical operations, aircraft manufacturing and repair, air freight, upholstery, painting, renovation shops, hot-air balloon manufacturing/flight, welding, aerial photography, tourist flights, charter services, drone services and aviation-related education services.
“It’s going to grow slowly with some fits and starts,” Spencer said, “but it’ll get there.”