Tacoma May Earn Millions on Airport Deal

The lease deal for Narrows Airport is being negotiated with an unnamed private party.


Tacoma officials are close to landing a deal that could wipe out the city's Narrows Airport debt, eliminate a longtime drain on the budget and put the facility in the care of a professional airport operator.

The pact is being negotiated with an unnamed private party.

City Manager Eric Anderson and facilities manager Mike Slevin told City Council members Tuesday the proposal could:

* Give the city $4.2 million in upfront lease payments. That's enough to pay the city's $1.2 million share of safety zone improvements and erase most of a loan from the general fund.

* Eliminate a biennial operating deficit of $550,000.

* Generate cash to the city from a 20-year lease reflecting the market value of the property.

* Remove responsibilities for airport operation and maintenance from the city.

* Include an option for the leaseholder to buy the airport if the Federal Aviation Administration consents to a sale and releases the city of its obligations to the agency.

Anderson stressed the negotiations are not complete, but he and Slevin presented an upbeat report that left council members smiling.

The two didn't know when they might bring an agreement to the council for approval, but Anderson said he hopes to have something in place by the end of March.

The amount of the monthly lease is still under discussion.

"I think this is good progress," Councilman Mike Lonergan said during an afternoon study session. "I think this is the direction in which we want to move."

Other council members agreed. But many left little doubt that what they'd really like to see is a signed sale agreement with an airport operator.

Councilman Rick Talbert called the airport "a huge asset for the area."

Councilwoman Julie Anderson described it as "a regional economic tool."

The city and Pierce County talked last year about the possibility of the county buying the airport, but those discussions fizzled, Slevin said.

The city would need "a full-blown appraisal" before selling the 43-year-old general-aviation facility on the Gig Harbor peninsula, Slevin said.

The city has estimated its value for airport use at $10.5 million. Tacoma's 644 acres, an island of city-owned land in unincorporated Pierce County, could fetch more than $20 million if sold to developers, estimates show.

But that kind of sale would be difficult.

Since airports are considered necessary for safety and welfare of citizens, it could be difficult to secure FAA approval to do something else with the land.

"The FAA is in the business of keeping airports open for the most part," Slevin said.

And the city could be on the hook for airport grants it got long ago from the FAA, Slevin said.

Neighbors in the area might object.

But there is a market.

"The desire to develop this piece of property in the development community is huge," Slevin said. "And there's no fear of taking on the FAA, taking on the private community groups and just paving the place," for the construction of houses and condominiums, he said.

Lonergan and others liked the idea that the city might get out from under the financial burden while the region still keeps its airport.

"I think it would be a big, big mistake" to sell it as other than an airport, he said.



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