Oct. 20--Plans to improve the Watertown International Airport could take flight in 2006.
Jefferson County and city of Watertown officials have finalized a purchase agreement, which, with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, could put the county in control by Jan. 1.
"I'm very excited. We've got it signed and we're in motion," said county Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the board's airport ad hoc committee. "We're really anxious to get in there and make some improvements right away, then work to market the facility and maybe look at other enhancements down the road."
The county Legislature agreed to take over the airport, which is in the town of Hounsfield, as part of a deal to gain the City Council's support to increase the county sales tax from 3 percent to 3.75 percent. The council had longed to dump the airport's expenses of more than $400,000 from the city budget, but county lawmakers were eager to take it over, viewing the annual expense as an investment in economic development.
To maximize its effects for the local economy, legislators have proposed that $5.2 million received as a payment in lieu of taxes for the development of 845 homes on Fort Drum be aimed toward improvements at the facility, which may include placing an industrial park near the terminal.
Lawmakers also hope that increased traffic will help reduce or eliminate the share paid by local taxpayers. If the airport takes in 10,000 passengers annually, or twice its current business, the county can access up to $1 million from the FAA for capital improvements.
"It's probably better in their hands; they seem enthusiastic about it," Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said.
Initially, city and county officials hoped the county would take control at the start of this year, then moved the date to July, but the complexity of the deal resulted in 19 separate drafts of the transfer agreement. The county has been paying the airport's expenses throughout the year.
The latest draft of the transfer agreement, which city officials approved on Tuesday, includes language regarding environmental damage at the facility. It states that any known contamination, including petroleum in the ground and asbestos in the terminal building, will be paid for by the city. The agreement also states that the city would pay for any pre-existing environmental concerns not yet found, though the county would have to run any proposed remediation by the city to ensure that it is necessary and being done in the most cost-effective manner.
"At this point, it's a go," City Manager Mary M. Corriveau said. "Both parties worked hard to get it so it fairly reflects their duties and responsibilities."
Although the City Council approved the airport's transfer in December, it will be asked to pass a resolution Monday giving Mrs. Corriveau authorization to send the agreement to the FAA. An earlier draft of the agreement had been sent to the federal agency over the summer for input and the document was adjusted.
County officials are optimistic that FAA approval will come in less than three months, which was the estimated time period given by the agency a year ago.
"We tried to jump-start the process, and I think we have done that significantly," said Robert F. Hagemann III, county administrator. "They made it clear to us that they would make this a top priority."
The transfer also settles a side deal between Legislature Chairman Robert J. Thomas, R-Glen Park, and Mrs. Corriveau, made during initial negotiations to have the county take over the facility.
"I'm looking forward to collecting my $3 from Bob Thomas and handing over the keys," Mrs. Corriveau joked Wednesday.
Mr. Thomas said he made his offer based on the cash he had with him at the time of their meeting last year.
"She wanted to know if I wanted to buy an airport," he said. "That's all I had, so that's what I offered her."
Times staff writer Cory Nealon contributed to this report.
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