Grove Field Airport expansion up in the air

Port commissioners table plan for improvements

Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner John Spencer is a pilot, so he believes “just like every boater knows how to run a marina,” as he told The Post-Record last month, he is in a good position to offer an insightful and detailed perspective about the future of the Grove Field airport.

Spencer’s vision for the airport is clear — commissioners must act soon to expand the runways or lose out to residential developers.

“I believe that at some point our airport will be very important to Clark County for economic development,” Spencer said. “It is going to become increasingly difficult to make use of Portland or Troutdale. Pearson (Field) is full up and, if anything, is going to shrink. Ours is the only viable airport for Clark County … so I very firmly believe we need to protect our airport and expand it to meet that future need. If we don’t do so today, residential is going to develop around it and the opportunity will be lost.”

Grove Field, a public airport about three miles north of downtown Camas, contains one runway, which is 2,710 feet long and 40 feet wide.

Part of Spencer’s “bigger plan” involves lengthening the runway to 4,200 feet.

“At that level you can bring in the UPS turboprop,” he said. “Yeah, you can get jets in and out (now), small ones, but I’m not talking (about) them. I’m talking the big single-engines that are carrying freight to little communities. That’s what I think we need.”

At the port commissioners’ March 18 meeting, Spencer presented a business implementation plan that called for specific improvements to be made to the airport.

“We are in agreement that the airport is here to stay, and it will need protection from development,” Spencer said at the meeting. “I know we’re not planning to do any major development, not this year at least. But there are several major safety items that could be addressed, such as the trees on one end of the airfield and the mobile home court on the other end that could present problems to pilots.”

According to the meeting’s agenda, the commissioners were supposed to vote on the plan. But after some brief discussion, it was tabled.

Port of Camas-Washougal Commissioner Larry Keister told The Post-Record on March 21 he decided to table the plan so it didn’t get voted down. He said that while he shares Spencer’s interest in the development of the airport, the two commissioners disagree on the level of support from the port.

“John is looking at it from a pilot perspective,” Keister said. “My opinion is based on the best use of land for a financial return for the port and the best use for the community. My suggestion for the future of airport is to let Grove Field continue as hobby airport as it is now, promote the flight school, look for any suitable airport related business to locate on current port land, and support Camas and its development of that area and see how we fit in with their expansion projects. In order to put money back in to (the airport), we have to increase the (airport’s) revenue. How we do that is kind of what we’re discussing now.”

At the March 18 meeting, the third port commissioner, Bill Ward, asked about the possibility of forming what he called a “steering group” to help the port and its commissioners come up with and implement a “plan for success for the airport.”

“I agree we have momentum and energy in the community for the airport, and I want to make the best possible use for it as we can,” Ward said. “There are a number of constituents involved — port people, our Grove Field neighbors, pilots. I’ll willfully plead ignorance at this point, but there are people that are knowledgeable that can make sure we have the best possible (structures) in place.”

Spencer said that discussions have been held in the past about employing a steering group, or what he called an airport advisory committee, but said that hypothetical committee members probably wouldn’t be too pleased about fielding the port’s request for assistance only to find out that the port is more focused on waterfront development.

“I’m not sure in terms of keeping people happy that would go over too well,” Spencer said.

Ward said the discussion about the airport’s future should be delayed until the port’s waterfront development has moved along so the port can “give the airport that amount of attention it deserves.”

Some community members weren’t happy with that plan, however.

Kent Mehrer, president of the Camas Washougal Aviation Association, told staff members and commissioners at the meeting that he’s “disappointed that the process has been delayed yet again.”

Keister said that he empathises with Mehrer’s position, but believes that he must consider other factors.

“The airport has been discussed for too long, and the commission needs to move ahead and make decisions so we represent the best interests of that land and how it fits into the community,” he said, “but we have to do it correctly. I think we have more discussion to do. We’re on the right track, but we’re not there yet. I know the airport community would like us to make a decision, but I want to make the right decision with the right information. We’re doing a lot at the airport now; it’s not like it just exists and is starting to deteriorate. We spend (all of the money the) airport brings in. We have to represent the financial interests of taxpayers in the entire community. I look at it as a business decision.”

Mehrer told The Post-Record he’d like to see four specific additions to the airport in the short term: an airport manager, a fixed-based operations building for airplane maintenance, a pilot facility and increased space for tie-downs.

“If we don’t start making these improvements, it’s going to go the other way. Once you lose an airport, they’re gone,” Mehrer said. “The port treats this as industrial property, since that’s the business they’re in. This is not industrial property. This is airport property. … If we had things (at the airport) done and completed, and they said, ‘We want to take a couple years and do the waterfront,’ that’d be fine. But (the airport) hasn’t changed in many, many perspectives.”

Ray Kutch, a Washougal city councilman, told staff members and commissioners at the March 18 meeting they shouldn’t necessarily prioritize the waterfront over the airport.

“I’d like to see us continue to strengthen Grove Field,” he said. “The waterfront is not separate. They should be all united together. We have to use all of our amenities (for waterfront development), and the airport is one of those amenities. You can’t let the airport just hang out there. They have to be worked simultaneously because it’s very important. Don’t forget about the airport — it’s just as important as the waterfront. Don’t let the airport go south because you don’t have time for it.”

Keister said that he believes the waterfront is “the biggest thing the port can offer communities.”

“We’re not not focusing on the future of the airport,” he said. “It’s not going to go away. It’s been there for a number of years and has value to the community. But we also have got waterfront properties that bring in a lot of revenue for Camas and Washougal and east Clark County, and we have an industrial park that’s literally paying our bills. We’ll continue to invest in those areas. My priority, along with the airport, is the development of the waterfront property. I feel that will bring jobs and will become a destination location for visitors and locals alike.”