Oakdale, Pilots at Odds in Flap over Runway Closure

The Oakdale Municipal Airport closed two months ago for runway improvements.

The runway has reopened, but some pilots say the closure was abrupt and handled poorly -- an indicator of the airport's deteriorating management and the city's lack of interest in keeping up the facility.

"This airport could be a real asset to the city if they learned to manage it correctly and cared more for the tenants," pilot Dick Jorgensen said, "if they changed their 'we' versus 'they' attitude."

Jorgensen, a livestock feed salesman who flies frequently to the southern San Joaquin Valley for business, said he received no notice of the closure until after the fact.

With no runway access, he couldn't move his plane to another airport. It sat idle for nearly two months.

"(The closure) cost me time and money," Jorgensen said. "My concern is not that the airport was going to have construction, but that no warning was given."

To Jorgensen's belief that the city is "anti-airport," Public Works Director John Word said "I don't see that at all."

If that were the case, Word said, the city would not have agreed to the runway project for which it's footing $190,000 -- or 10 percent -- of the $1.9 million bill.

The city received a $1.9 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to cover 90 percent of the cost for repaving and widening the runway 9 feet, repainting its striping and upgrading runway and taxiway lights.

The project also includes a new electrical system for the lighting and a new building to house it.

Any leftover federal money, Word said, is to be used for future projects.

Mayor Pat Kuhn said the city is making a significant investment in the airport considering that it loses money each year it's open.

Word said that for 2006-07 the airport's budget is $239,000, but its projected revenue is $202,000 -- a $37,000 gap.

"They're all businessmen," Kuhn said of the pilots. "In running their businesses, if year after year they were losing revenue, would they continue to put a substantial investment into the same project?"

Kuhn said the city would be open to a private investor leasing and managing the airport, but none has come forward.

Word and Kuhn acknowledged that communication between city officials and pilots regarding the construction was poor.

"Maybe it has kind of felt like that, that (the airport) is almost a stepchild," Word said, "but it's not the intention of staff. We do the best that we can."

In the future, Word said, he will see that pilots are given warning and that notices are posted at the airport.

The runway is again open 24hours, but Public Works Supervisor Marc King said it will be closed at least one more day to paint striping.

With no tower, Oakdale's is considered a recreational airport. Pilots use two-way radios to communicate their landings.

King said if the project stays on schedule, it will be finished in September.

The pilots are pleased with the remodeled runway but wish the airport's facilities would get the same treatment.

"Planes are big investments," pilot Bill Bradford II said. "We would like a nice place to store them."

The city-owned hangars are 40 years old, constructed of wood frames enclosed in sheet metal.

And they leak.

"When it rains, you have a river running through your hangar," professional pilot Robert Foster said.

Even though Bradford's hangar is newer, his also floods because the airport has no drainage.

The hangars lack running water and electricity, but Word said these are perks they never were meant to have.

"It's a place to keep the planes out of the sun and the elements," he said, adding that there is to be no work done in the hangars and nothing stored in them but planes.

When it comes to improvements, Word added, "there's not enough money there to justify building new hangars, for what it costs to build them and what you get for renting them."

Bradford, the city's newly appointed airport commissioner, understands both sides in the financial tug of war, he said, but empathizes with the pilots' longing for nicer facilities.

"Flying," he said, "is one of the last great freedoms we have."

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