The town of Silver Creek is considering sponsoring the closed Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport.
A special public meeting was held Tuesday, Nov. 26, at Silver Creek Town Hall regarding the potential sponsorship. About 40 people gathered in the hall to hear the issue and ask questions.
The airport runway was closed in May 2018 and its license was revoked after a Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics inspection found the runway conditions to be unsafe.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 maintain it.
Representatives from the FAA, MnDOT, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and an aviation consultant presented on what steps would need to be taken to reopen the airport.
The first step is finding a public sponsor. While it would be possible for the airport to operate as a privately owned facility, it would then become ineligible for federal and state grants that fund up to 95% of repair and maintenance costs.
“If you’re asking 'Why Silver Creek?' it’s kind of because we’re the municipality of last resort,” said Greg Hull, chairman of the Silver Creek Town Board. “Silver Bay is done with the grant assurances; Beaver Bay doesn’t seem interested; Lake County turned it down because it’s not the only airport in the county and they want to maintain neutrality. We’re kind of the last shot.”
The runway needs to be repaved or repaired — an estimated $2.5 million project — the clear approaches need to be verified and the sponsors would need to apply for a new license application with MnDOT. The work to the runway could be covered by federal and state grants that cover up to 90$-95% of eligible work. Local funding could also be obtained from government agencies such as the IRRRB.
However, grants come with assurances to ensure the airport remains open and viable. For example, when the new approach and departure building was added to the Silver Bay Airport in 2010, it came with a 40-year grant assurance. Meanwhile, a new runway would come with a 20-year grant assurance.
“To my understanding, this is the main objection Silver Bay had with the airport,” Hull said. “When you take federal money, it’s not free. When the feds give you checks, there are hooks. With an airport, if the federal government builds you a building, it has a life expectancy to it, they figure, and you have to keep the airport open this many years or you pay us back the money you owe us on a prorated basis. But it’s no different than when we take money for roads and bridges.”
After hearing from representatives, Hull and the panel took questions regarding the airports viability.
“I’ll say this: We’re at the very beginning of this process. We’re just looking into it right now. More has to be done before we say we’re for it or against it. But I think it doesn’t hurt to look,” Hull said.