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Silver Bay Airport future still up in air

The Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport closed May 31 after a state inspection found the runway unsafe for planes to land. News-Chronicle file

The Silver Bay City Council held a public hearing Monday, Jan. 7, to gather comments about the possible permanent closure of the the Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport. About 30 people packed into the council meeting room to share their thoughts and hear the official report.

"I never even dreamed I'd be sitting in this meeting," said Matt Nelson, one of a handful of airplane owners who used the airport. "It never occurred to me that a city would close its airport with such little warning and so abruptly. I wish you'd do this over time, with a proper long-range plan."

The airport runway was closed in May and its license was revoked after a Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics inspection found the runway conditions to be unsafe.

The runway fell into disrepair after the city of Silver Bay chose to discontinue receiving grants from MnDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration, which would have required the city to financially match part of the funds to keep up maintenance.

MnDOT presented a report to the council about the impacts and financial stakes of the possible closure. The full report can be found at dot.state.mn.us/aero.

One of the most notable impacts is the issue of repayment of grant assurances to the FAA and the MnDOT. If the city chooses to close the airport permanently, the city would owe the state airports fund about $8,500, and owe the federal government around $750,000.

Grant assurances are contracts between the city and the state or federal government, basically assuring that if the city accepts money to fund airport repairs or improvements, they must keep the airport open and running for a certain length of time.

Cassandra Isackson, director of MnDOT's Office of Aeronautics, used the runway as an example at the meeting.

"If you chose to redo the runway, it would likely be split with 90 percent of the financial burden on the federal government, 5 percent on the state level and 5 percent coming from the city and/or other funding sources," Isackson said. "It would then have an assurance life of about 20 years."

"Wouldn't it be swell if the runway then lasted for 20 years, but it doesn't," said Silver Bay City Councilor Richard DeRosier, who sat in for Mayor Scott Johnson and chaired the public hearing. "It's nowhere near that. So the city ends up being on the hook again and just the cost of maintaining that runway is beyond the cost the city is willing to provide. It just doesn't stop.

"We're stuck in a financial domino effect that we can't get off," he said.

The meeting mostly included comments from pilots and other concerned residents and rebuttals from councilors and the airport authorities.

Pilots Tim Norman from Tofte and Chuck Lewer from Silver Bay borrowed an argument from the movie "Field of Dreams:" "If you built it, they will come."

"I've seen it happen before. You could make this a destination airport and build it up nicely," Norman said. "I was surprised at how much the Cook County airport's usage increased after it was rebuilt not too long ago. People fly from all over to land there."

Also in the corner of rebuilding the airport was Mike Beard, a representative from Bollig Engineering. Beard said his company works with several small towns across Minnesota to help them with their airport projects.

"Every one of them (is) clamoring to keep or improve their airports because they recognize the connection to the national and regional economy. There's one city that has entrepreneurs with clients who fly in from across the country to see their products," Beard said. "It's really a little disorienting to listen to a city council trying to shed their airport when we're dealing with seven other cities right now trying desperately to save theirs."

Councilor Shane Hoff offered a rebuttal to this point.

"I don't know if I speak for all the council members, but I don't think there's anyone here who's against having the airport. I think we think it could be a great thing for the city in the right situation, and right now financially, we're struggling," Hoff said. "I understand the economic impacts can be beneficial at some point, but right now we're not seeing that. So to keep pumping money, to keep raising taxes to support an airport where not many Silver Bay citizens are actively using right now, it's a struggle for us."

Ultimately, the future of the airport remains to be seen. Councilors thanked the attendees for their responses, but did not act on the topic at their later regular council meeting. Councilors plan to reach out to state and federal legislators to see about receiving aid and seek advice on how to proceed.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. 

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