Proposal to Sell Festus Airport Draws Mixed Feelings

Daymond Coleman can tell within five seconds of meeting someone whether that person ever has been around airplanes.

Those who haven't marvel at the assorted airplanes stored inside his repair shop at Festus Memorial Airport. Those who have just look, he said.

"And when I say something like 'Nondirectional beacon,' they know what it is," said Coleman, 77, whose long career of fixing and flying airplanes in Festus soon may come to an end.

City Council members have given preliminary approval to selling the airport, and a final vote is expected Wednesday. The decision could put an end to a debate that has lasted for decades and that Coleman has watched almost from the beginning.

About 1935, a group of business leaders built the airport on a stretch of grass east of Highway 61. At that time, Coleman was spending long hours in the sun helping his father tend to the family farm on Taum Sauk Mountain in Lesterville, Mo.

Each time an airplane passed, Coleman was in awe.

"Airplanes fascinate me," he said in a recent interview. "Being able to get up there and not being hooked onto anything - it's a minor miracle."

He visited Festus Memorial Airport in 1953 and took his first flying lesson. He thought he never would be able to fly.

"Not very many people can do it," he said. "It requires a lot of personal discipline. To stay alive you've got to follow the rules. If you take chances, you will never grow old enough to have arthritis."

Coleman said, "When you take that first test flight, you think, 'Did I do everything right?' That's why I pray every time I take off, 'God, give me a good, safe flight.'"

In 1959 he left a job at the glass factory in Crystal City and became a licensed airplane mechanic at the Festus airport. Shortly thereafter, the airport's owner, Lewis Lucas, donated the airport to Festus.

"He wanted to see the airport grow," Coleman recalled.

In 1965, Coleman said, government money was used to pave the grass runway, and he and his partner built the office building where airport employees and volunteers still work.

Coleman was a partner in a business that provided charter flight services for auto dealers. By the early 1970s, the business employed about 30 people.

But, by 1976 the relationship with the airport soured.

"Someone didn't think I was doing a good job," he said. "So I sold out, much to my regret. If I wouldn't have sold out, the airport wouldn't be in the trouble that it's in today."

For the next two decades, Coleman hardly ever returned to the Festus airport, which went in and out of bankruptcy. He traveled the nation and always found work repairing planes.

In the 1980s, Festus officials tried to annex the airport. Crystal City leaders filed a lawsuit because they feared the annexation would leave them landlocked. A judge ruled that Festus could not annex it, and Crystal City could not annex it so long as it remained an airport - a decision that would prevent Festus from collecting sales-tax revenue from the airport.

Also in the 1980s, a landfill was built on the southern tip of the runway. The landfill stripped the airport of its eligibility to attract federal grants for improvements.

Festus leaders occasionally discussed selling the airport or finding another site for it, but there were no buyers.

Destination: Bonne Terre

By 1996, Coleman was ready to stop traveling and decided that returning to the place where he first fell in love with flying would be ideal. He built his own hangar, and "people just kept bringing me their planes, and I kept fixin' them. And here I am, still fixing them."

In 2004, Coleman helped to form a group called Citizens for Airport Economic Expansion. It managed the airport for Festus and lobbied to expand the runway to 5,000 feet from 2,200 feet. The group paid for a study, which found that the runway could be expanded. But without federal grants, Festus would have to pay about $6 million over 20 years.

Coleman believes Festus could regain its federal funding status and the group could make the airport a regional aviation hub.

But City Council members apparently do not agree.

The 90-acre site is worth about $1.9 million, and Mayor Gene Doyle would prefer to see that money used for public works. The airport land probably would be used for housing or other development, said pilot Herman Jett.

From the air, Jett said, land around the airport "used to be all dark; now it's lit up like a Christmas tree."

Jett and his fellow pilots are planning to move to the Bonne Terre airport if the Festus airport is sold. And they hope Coleman will follow.

"If he retires," Jett said, "he'll die."

Coleman acknowledges that the thought of retiring scares him. Perhaps the rush he gets from taking planes apart and putting them back together has kept him from being consumed with his health worries, including skin cancer and the removal of his prostate and bladder. His skin is scarred and blotchy from numerous surgeries.

The thought of watching the Festus airport enter its final chapter while witnessing the revitalization of the Bonne Terre airport leaves Coleman with mixed emotions.

"It's kind of like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new Caddie," he said. "I can sell all of my toys and live on my Social Security checks, get old before my time, dry up and blow away. But some of these guys have already told me they want me to work on their planes.

"But I'll believe it until my last breath: This airport is good for the community."

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