City Looking to Sell Tacoma Narrows Airport

Feb. 14 -- Some say the city, which has lost money on the Tacoma Narrows Airport for years, has done a lackluster job of promoting and running what should be a goldmine.

"It's a busy airport, and they're going to give it away," said Mike Pickett, owner of Pavco Flight Center. "Anybody could run this place better than the city of Tacoma."

A retired Air Force officer and longtime Gig Harborite, Pickett, 67, has operated Pavco since the early 1980s, offering everything from rental aircraft, fuel, and flight instruction, to concerige services for corporate aircraft and general aviation. With a crew of 25 people and a steady clientele, Pickett said businesses like his are economic generators with a bright future.

Yet politics and bureaucracy have put a damper on business. "We don't have representation on the [city] council," he said. "The city just collects the rent." Pickett cited recent weather-related closures and power outages as a prime example of the city's neglect.

Worse, despite its use as a disaster relief airport, the TNA doesn't have its own power, nor its own fire/rescue vehicles on-site.

Ben Olsen, president of Associated Aviation, has been doing business at the airport for about 20 years. He also feels the airport could be better managed. "The city doesn't seem to pay a lot of attention to the airport," he said.

He said he hopes that whoever purchases the airport will take a more active role in maintaining and promoting it. "You have to spend money to make money," he said.

Rich Mueller, manager of Tacoma Narrows Airport declined comment for this story. New ownership?

Founded in 1963, as the Tacoma Industrial Airport, the TNA brings in civilian, business, military and emergency medical aviation -- everything but regularly scheduled airlines.

Having lost millions on the facility in recent years, the City of Tacoma is looking to sell. Pierce County, which already handles the permitting and collects taxes on the airport, has offered between $3.5 million to $4 million.

However, City Administrator Eric Anderson has been in negotiations with a private entity prepared to offer a considerably larger sum than the county. Anderson declined to name the prospective buyer, saying only that he'll make his decision later, perhaps in March.

"We're doing our due diligence to maximize the return to the taxpayer," he said.

Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee said he feels the airport belongs in the county inventory, but fears the council will not commit more than $4 million for the 644-acre property, which in includes the Madrona Links Golf Course. If the county does get to purchase the airport, Lee would push for use of the northern portion as passive recreation, such as trails.

He also noted that the county profitably oversees Pierce County Airport, Thun Field in Puyallup.

"I think we could do the same for the Tacoma Narrows Airport," he said.

Future expansion?

News of the pending sale has increased speculation about future uses at the airport, such as an increased runway. Jeff Winter, a civil engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration's Seattle Airports Division said such fears are unfounded.

The FAA is currently planning the installation of a safety zone directly to the north of the airport's 5002-foot runway. Roughly 500 feet wide, the zone would extend 1,000 feet to the north, across Stone Drive. Auto traffic would be tunneled beneath the "cap," which would be planted with grass. Completion is expected in 2008.

The FAA will pick up 95 percent of the project's roughly $16 million tab. The balance is the responsibility of the airport owner.

The cap is not a runway extension, Winter said. Nor will it open the property north of Stone Drive to hangars or other aviation uses. The necessary taxiway and access road are not part of the plans.

"They could in the future build a separate access bridge, but there is no plan to develop any aviation facilities on the north side of Stone Drive," he said.

Winter said that whoever acquires the property will be required to keep it as an airport, and will be free to add more hangars to the 150 or so that already exist on site. Should it wish to expand the runway, the future owner would be required to make the case to the FAA -- something the City of Tacoma has failed to do.

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