Jan. 11--Now the work can begin.
Almost two years after Jefferson County lawmakers first proposed taking over Watertown International Airport from the city of Watertown in April 2004, the county Legislature, in a special meeting Tuesday, officially approved taking over the facility.
The city and Federal Aviation Administration have already approved the agreement, which now needs only state Department of Transportation approval and finishing touches.
"We're in the home stretch," said Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the board's airport ad hoc committee. "I feel really positive about getting full possession of the facility. I'm looking forward to moving ahead with some adjustments and upgrades that will increase our ridership and get us where we need to be."
The agreement to take over the airport, which is on Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield, just outside of Dexter, was part of a deal to gain the city's support for an increase to the county's sales tax. City officials have long considered the facility a burden, though county lawmakers see it differently.
"When I first ran, the one and only issue ever discussed by my constituents was the airport and getting it off the hands of the city," said board Vice Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown. "I don't look at it as a burden, and there are things we can do to improve it."
County lawmakers had hoped to take over the facility on Jan. 1, 2005, but legal issues, most of which centered on environmental liability, slowed the process. The county reimbursed the city for last year's expenses at the airport and has bonded to take on the city's remaining debt, which was about $740,000.
Despite the eagerness of Mr. Ormsby and his committee to get in and fix up the airport to make it more attractive to passengers, the board as a whole decided it was better to wait until the transfer was completed before making improvements. Some of the basic improvements, including cleaning windows to remove dead insects and spider webs in the terminal, have been done, but more can be expected.
"I wanted to get started yesterday," said Legislator Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, a member of the ad hoc committee. "I think immediately we've got to get out there and see what quick fixes we can do until we get our long-term goals."
His primary concern is the flow of traffic within the building, which is not geared to make the most efficient use of its square footage. County Highway Superintendent James L. Lawrence, who will oversee the facility, said crews have begun painting the terminal and other changes are on the way to address legislators' concerns.
Some possible changes to be done include replacing counters, relocating equipment, bringing in new carpet and furniture, tinting windows, and even moving some walls to create more space.
"In about a month's time, we'll get together to give the legislators in the ad hoc committee a plan for remodeling," Mr. Lawrence said. "Moving the walls will create more of an open space both for passengers and their visitors sending them off. There's a lack of accommodations right now, a lack of seating and a lack of room to move."
Improvements to the terminal are not the only changes planned to make the facility more customer friendly. Mr. Ormsby said he hopes to meet soon with representatives of Mesa Air Group, the airport's commercial carrier, to discuss better customer service, such as larger planes and new destinations outside of Pittsburgh.
This change may increase ridership. Since Mesa Air is receiving a subsidy to serve the airport now, it may want to see a guarantee of more passengers to make the changes -- a chicken-and-egg scenario Mr. Ormsby said he hopes Fort Drum can answer with a promise to steer soldiers toward Watertown instead of Syracuse.