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North Adams Planning Airport Growth With Fresh Infrastructure

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
05:13PM / Saturday, October 13, 2012
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MassDOT and the FAA has spent more than $15 million in the last decade upgrading the airport's infrastructure and the city is now looking to maximize the benefits.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — After more than $15 million of upgrades the Harriman and West Airport is becoming one of the nicest small airports in New England and airport officials are hoping to make that a huge boon for the city.

For the last 12 years the Federal Aviation Administration and the state Department of Transportation has been investing in the infrastructure.

The airport had trees cleared to increase the landing areas, resurfaced the runway, bought new maintenance equipment, added new security gate and perimeter fencing and replaced the beacon.

A taxiway project is underway, ramp renovations are expected in the next few years and a new approach system is being studied.

Airport officials are seeing the improvements as a way to increase traffic and help local businesses. One example of business growth is Airport Commissioner Trevor Gilman's vision of the return of charter flights.

Gilman used to fly charters flights out of the airport and recalls bringing work crews from R.I. Baker to Cape Cod for large contracts. Flying was cheaper than paying the employees for the time to drive there and losing almost two days of work, he said. Or companies such as venture capital groups would base their offices in the Berkshires because their employees would want to live here. Instead of driving to business meetings in the city, they would fly.

"We flew a lot of businesses," Gilman said.

However, since the glory days of the airport, it fell into ruin because of a lack of upkeep and investment. Now with the $15 million worth of improvements, airport officials don't want to see that happen again.

"The reason we got this influx of money in the last decade is because since the '50s, we've had very little funding. For the most part from the '50s on there weren't many improvements there," Gilman said. "This is really like the first round of funding since it was built."

Mayor Richard Alcombright envisions the improvements to not only help the businesses that already operate there but would like to see the improvements trigger retail nearby, public areas, increased foot traffic downtown or new restaurants — such as a pilot's lounge.

"When you think about the many of millions of dollars that has been put into it in the last 10 years or so, we think that it can be a lot more than it is in respect to commercial traffic, public safety and consumer traffic," Alcombright said on Friday.

The first step to both maintaining and growing the airport is to pull the funding out of the general fund and turn it into an enterprise fund. From there, the Airport Commission would be looking to hire a full-time manager that can not only upkeep the property — which is currently done by city workers — but can manage the airport's growth.

City Administrative Officer Michael Canales has already been sent to commission meetings to start analyzing the potential growth. Recently the city took over selling gas there and Canales says he is waiting for a few more months of data to see how that new type of management works before committing the city to hiring for that position.

"We're still in the discovery stage," Canales said. "We want the airport to be run efficiently."

Currently the city provides a small stipend for an airport manager, who mostly coordinates with city workers for maintenance. But the part-time and sharing of workers leaves areas that are under maintained, Gilman said, such as the areas that where trees were previously cleared and are now growing back in.

Alcombright says he is not quite sold yet on hiring a full-time manager but if the revenue projects are looking close, he'll "roll the dice" to see if it works.

"I just think it has possibilities," Alcombright said. "There is always risk in changing. There is always risk in trying to grow. But I think it would be foolhardy not to take that chance."

The city will only continue with the new management model if the airport can be "self-sufficient" and pay for the added costs, Alcombright said.

Gilman is confident that the revenue numbers will show just that. The airport generates more than three times it expends annually but because the money goes into the general fund, they can't use it, he said. The airport derives revenue from renting space, landing fees for commercial aircrafts, gas sales and tiedown fees - all of which will increase with increased traffic.

"We definitely expect to have revenue growth over the next few years," Gilman said. "As everything increases, revenue increases."

Traffic will be increased not only because of the infrastructure improvements but also because of a new navigation system that is being planned. Some planes are not insured to fly into airports without GPS approaches if the cloud level is too low so many never plan to land in North Adams at all. That GPS system is in the study phase now and Gilman hopes to have that installed soon.

"We believe these changes will make us more attractive," Gilman said.

Alcombright said that if the city opts to go with a full-time manager, it will coincide with the completion of the improvements. This budget cycle, Alcombright expects a conversation about pulling the airport's revenue out of the general fund.

"I do think there is potential for job growth over there," Alcombright said. "At the end of the day what we don't want is to have city funds augment the airport... Anything we do over there has to be focused on growth."
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