Controversial plans to expand Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, which have been around for 15 years but never begun, now have a timetable and a funding plan.
The commission in charge of the airport intends to lengthen its two runways by the end of 2009. And it expects area businesses to finance a portion of the cost.
"We plan to go to the corporations that might benefit and ask if they could contribute," said Gary Schmidt, director of the reliever airport system, of which Flying Cloud is a part, for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
Corporations use the airport to fly in executives, potential clients and customers.
MAC is hoping that businesses will fund 20 percent of the project's $12 million cost. The other 80 percent could come from federal grants, Schmidt said.
If the funding comes through, it will disappoint residents who live near the airport and worry that the additions will increase noise.
MAC will finish its applications for federal dollars by October and could learn whether it was accepted within a few months.
It's the first time MAC has applied for such grants to expand Flying Cloud.
But the commission plans to lengthen the shorter of the two runways with money it already has - and before 2009.
"The commission is committed to that," Schmidt said.
If businesses' contributions exceed 20 percent of the cost, they will go toward construction of hangar space on the airport's south side.
MAC has said it expects the expansion would increase traffic at the airport, which had about 145,000 landings and takeoffs in 2006. With the expansion, that could increase to 230,000 to 300,000 per year by 2010. Business jet landings and takeoffs could increase from about 5,900 to about 24,000 by 2010, said Pat Hogan, the MAC's spokesman.
But residents who oppose the expansion and organized the group Zero Expansion point out that MAC doesn't have the money yet. And they plan to fight the grants MAC will be pushing.
"We will do what we can to influence our federal legislators the other way," said Mark Michelson, a Zero Expansion member and city airport commission member.
Where does the city stand?
Zero Expansion has counted on a lack of funding - and a lack of priority among projects needing federal funding - keeping the expansion from happening.
"Sometimes the city acts as if the expansion is a for-sure thing. But it's been a for-sure thing for seven years. It hasn't happened yet," Zero Expansion member Gary Demee said.
So when it seemed the city was lobbying for the project's funding earlier this year, Zero Expansion members fought the move. They pushed for the city to approve a resolution stating that the city "is now officially neutral ... and will not act either for or against the runway and hangar development plans."
Following a council workshop this month, Council Member Sherri Butcher had intended to propose a resolution with a similar intent.
It read, in part, that "the city will not act to encourage or support development at Flying Cloud Airport, except ... to sustain public safety or to remedy an immediate threat to public health."
The Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce, which supports the expansion, proposed a counter-resolution that called for the city's support.
At a council meeting last week, Butcher proposed a motion - which is considered less binding than a resolution - that both sides could agree on. It said the city would "recognize and affirm" a 2002 agreement in which, in exchange for concessions such as limits on nighttime flying, the city agreed to not oppose the MAC's plans for expansion. That agreement implied a "neutral stance," Butcher said.
Butcher's motion passed unanimously, with each council member assuring the public that the city had no plans to fund, cheerlead, lobby or encourage the airport's expansion.
Michelson, of Zero Expansion, said he was satisfied with the motion and the council's pledge to remain neutral. "I really do think it's a good thing," he said.
Pat MulQueeny, the Chamber's president, was pleased as well. "It's a positive outcome," he said.
Some businesses on board
While the city's role in the expansion is neutral, MAC is pressing ahead.
Many of the Chamber's members are "interested in making the expansion happen," MulQueeny said, and would be willing to at least indirectly fund the expansion by buying hangar space.
Recently, he heard from the owner of one of the group's smaller businesses - "one you'd never expect" and which he declined to identify - who said he has six clients who'd like to fly to Eden Prairie. But four of those six have private jets that can't use the airport because the runways are slightly too short, MulQueeny said.
Those are the businesses MAC hopes to target in its fundraising, Schmidt said. "Many would directly benefit."
Schmidt said he had not planned to announce the new fundraising strategy until later this week, although he had spoken with Mayor Phil Young, the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce and some businesses about the plan.
He said the airport's expansion was stalled not by the price of the project but by the process.
For example, MAC has had to deal with Northwest Airlines' objections to using fees from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to help pay for work at the area's smaller reliever airports.
"We're about to resolve that complaint. We're finishing the environmental review process," Schmidt said. "All that puts us in a position, finally, to move forward on this project."
Jenna Ross - 612-673-7168
STORY IN BRIEF
Two developments in the controversy over Flying Cloud Airport:
- The Metropolitan Airports Commission plans to expand the airport's two runways by 2009, which would allow heavier planes to land there. MAC will ask area corporations to fund 20 percent of the project's cost.
- The Eden Prairie City Council approved a motion that affirms the "neutral stance" implied by a 2002 agreement about the expansion. The move, which passed unanimously, seems to satisfy both sides.
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