Port, city to study future use of airport

Nov. 14--The future of Vista Field may be decided by a couple of consultants.

One hired by the Port of Kennewick and the other by the city of Kennewick.

City council members agreed at their workshop Tuesday night to spend $50,000 to seek an outside opinion on the best use of the 90-acre airfield.

Hours earlier at a Port of Kennewick meeting, commissioners decided they want a consultant to see if the Richland Airport could accommodate Vista Field users should the Kennewick airport be closed.

Port commissioners authorized a new study by J-U-B Engineers to look into the existing operations at Vista Field and Richland airports and the potential for increasing the capacity at the Richland Airport.

A few months ago, J-U-B Engineers said a new airport to replace Vista Field will cost more than $20.5 million.

The new feasibility study will help broaden the options available to the commissioners and help them make a decision, said Tim Arntzen, the port's executive director.

The study will help bring another perspective into the discussion about Vista Field's future, he said. "No conclusion has been reached yet," he said.

Bob Hammond, Kennewick's city manager, urged the council Tuesday night to form a committee of stakeholders, including airport users and citizens, to select a consultant to do a different kind of study.

Hammond said the consultant, who should come from outside the Tri-Cities so there could be no possibility of conflict of interest, could determine the best use of the Vista Field property "with and without an airport."

Hammond said the city has no official position on closing the airport even though several members of the council have openly said they'd like it gone.

Vista Field occupies 90 acres of prime land suitable for commercial, retail and business development in the Vista Entertainment District, which includes the Three Rivers Convention Center and Toyota Center.

Hammond said the council needs to know what the potential is so it can decide if it can be a "super niche airport," or should be turned to greater profits.

Having an expert study would put Kennewick in a leadership role on the Vista Field issue, Hammond said.

Some council members, including mayor Jim Beaver, didn't warm to the suggestion.

"I am biased. I think the airport has got to go. Studies up the ying-yang will tell me nothing different from what I already know," Tom Moak said. "This could be $50,000 down the hole."

Moak argued it isn't necessary to have a study to "convince the masses."

"We need to convince only three port commissioners" that Vista Field is no longer in the right place, he said.

"My concern is do our other airports have enough capacity to accept (what is at Vista Field)," he said.

The port commission's study on the Richland airport's capacity may give an answer.

"Right now it is a burden to the taxpayers," said councilman Paul Parish. "We need to know what the property can be," he added.

Councilman Jim Hempstead said a study on best use is good, but he doubts Vista Field has enough capacity to be what Hammond called a superior niche airport.

Beaver noted that Vista Field's land is worth about $24 million, for which the city was getting "a negative return." As a simple business decision, it should go, he said.

But the mayor said he'd allow another study, if it could resolve the years-old issue.

Hammond said the city's study would not be shelved. "This gets us into the game. It will influence your recommendation," he said.

In 2003, the port agreed to keep the airport, which is used by business and recreational users, open until 2021.

The $25,000 study by J-U-B Engineers will analyze the current and future needs of Vista Field users and whether Richland Airport can potentially handle them. There are 35 to 40 planes in Vista Field hangars.

J-U-B Engineers also has been involved with the Richland Airport Layout Plan Update, the final draft of which was sent for review to the Federal Aviation Administration last month, said John Haakenson, the Port of Benton's director of airports and operations. The plan is about the long-term growth of the airport.

The update looks at the possibility of extending the runway and providing new hangar spaces, said Spencer Montgomery, transportation planner for J-U-B.

There may be some room for expansion on the northwestern side of Richland Airport, Arntzen said.

The study is expected to be completed by the year end.

--Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com

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