By Steve Woodhouse
Pella — An informational meeting regarding the proposed Oskaloosa-Pella regional airport was held at the Community Center last night. The crowd inside the packed Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium would have preferred a different structure for the meeting.
On the meeting's agenda was direction that the crowd would be divided into two groups for questions, following the main presentation. One group, with site-specific questions, was sent to the cafeteria and others, with specific questions for 28E partners the City of Pella, City of Oskaloosa and Mahaska County, were sent to room 204.
Before the main presentation began, requests came from the audience to hold all question and answer sessions inside the auditorium. Those who spoke up said they believed this would be beneficial, for everyone to hear the questions proposed and answers given.
The request was denied. The crowd was told that the South Central Regional Airport Agency (SCRAA) Board had selected the format for the evening. The SCRAA board is comprised of representatives from Pella, Oskaloosa and Mahaska County, and will govern the regional airport when complete. The City of Pella representatives are David Barnes, Steve Van Weelden and Donna Smith.
"There was no feasible way to answer everyone's questions without splitting up the group," Pella City Administrator Mike Nardini told The Chronicle. "We wanted the opportunity to answer as many questions as possible."
He added that no matter what format was used, concerns would have remained. The goal of the meeting was to answer questions and provide as much information about the airport as possible.
When the main presentation was over, room 204 quickly began to fill with people. There were so many trying to get into the room that Police Chief Robert Bokinsky contacted the fire chief to find out the room's maximum occupancy.
The fire chief arrived later and limited the number of people in the room at a given time to 50, leaving dozens more in hallways and another room.
The format and the planning disappointed one Leighton woman, who asked to not be identified. She believed that everyone should have been kept in the large auditorium, as this format made it difficult for people to get answers.
Others, outside of the community center, complained about the approach taken by the SCRAA to move the airport forward. They do not think the group was up front with information and accused the group of trying to hide information from the public.
Nardini said the process has been open. All meetings of the SCRAA Board are posted. The Pella City Council held at least two presentations on the airport before taking action on the 28E agreement. A public hearing was also held before the 28E was signed, but no comments were received. Nardini indicated that Oskaloosa did the same thing, and during its public hearing, only one individual commented.
"This process has been going on for some time," Nardini said. According to the public presentation, Oskaloosa and Pella began working on the project in July 2010. Discussion of the need for a larger airport to serve Pella began years before that.
The SCRAA was formed in March 2012 with a goal of building a Category "C" airport that would be within 10 minutes of the Oskaloosa and Pella city limits and within four miles of Highway 163.
A Master Plan is being developed in regard to finances and costs for the project, according to Nardini. Early numbers indicate that the estimated cost of the airport will be between $24-30 million. Nardini said approximately 90 percent of the cost is eligible Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding. These elgible costs include the runway, airport entrance, roads, land acquisition and road relocation.
Local match, estimated to be 10 percent, or between $5-6 million, will be split evenly between the cities of Oskaloosa and Pella. These costs will cover buildings and other "ground up" projects associated with building a new airport. Shrock and Nardini believe much of these costs can be paid from proceeds of selling the existing airports.
Net, ongoing expenses for the airport will be split 60-40 between Pella and Oskaloosa. Pella has more representation on the SCRAA and will thus pay 60 percent.
"Since Pella has more, they will pay more operating expenses," Oskaloosa City Manager Mike Shrock said.
Site selection is underway. A new site is being proposed to provide for a longer runway, to accommodate precision landing. This is especially important during inclement weather and has been a major concern for the current Pella Airport.
A Category "C" Aircraft is one capable of an approach speed of 140 knots, around 79 feet in wingspan and carries 5-6 passengers. The Pella Airport, a Category B-2, does not minimum safety standards to accommodate this type of aircraft. The aircraft of this size that currently utilizes the airport is doing so only through special permission with the FAA.
Upgrading the current Pella Airport is not feasible, Nardini added. He provided a graphic Thursday night to show what it would take to meet Category "C" requirements and the obstructions in the way of making that a reality. A "clear zone" is not possible around the existing airport.
"Highway 163 is right in that clear zone," Nardini said. "We're dealing with a very constrained site at the Pella Airport."
The necessity for the new airport was spelled out Thursday night. Such an airport is needed to supprt local business and industry. Major employers in the area use Category "C" aircraft, which also make it easier for them to travel to the east and west coasts for business.
These firms have a major financial impact on Pella, Oskaloosa and the entire region. They are key customers of the cities who need access to a Category "C" airport to remain competitive.
Kathy Krafka-Harkema, with Pella Corporation, discussed this with The Chronicle years ago. For the company to meet its business needs, quick and easy air travel has become just as important as highway infrastructure to remain competitive. The chance exists that, if the cities are unable to meet the needs of these major employers, they may leave, which could affect the quality of life for the region.
Federal and State government entities are also pushing local governments to work more regionally.
"Both of them have endorsed regionalization when it comes to transportation projects," Nardini said.
When the regional airport is completed, Nardini believes it will be the tenth-busiest in the state.
The SCRAA Board is reviewing the final three proposed sites. All three met with no objections from the FAA. A final selection may not be done for some time.
"It could be up to two years before that process is complete," Nardini said. This includes environmental impact studies and other preparation.
Acquiring the land for the final selected site has yet to be addressed. Shrock and Nardini indicated that the owner of the site would receive a "fair and equitable" offer for the land. They are hopeful the eminent domain process will not be necessary, as a similar project in northwest Iowa that is currently being finished, was able to do so without this process.
Nardini said he answered questions from people Thursday night, until around 8:40 p.m. Most of the questions proposed to him focused on the partnership and the finances of the project.
The SCRAA board has not set its next meeting. Look to the Chronicle to follow this story as it continues.