Tacoma Narrows Airport could be on a new financial flight path next year.
A private party is negotiating with the City of Tacoma to buy the 43-year-old general-aviation facility on the Gig Harbor peninsula.
City Manager Eric Anderson declined this week to name the prospective buyer or discuss a possible purchase price for the airport and adjacent properties.
But he did say the suitor, an out-of-state company with experience in airport operations, is "willing to pay more than the county."
Pierce County offered earlier this year to take over the airport in a $4 million deal. The county would have paid about $3 million for the facility and assumed responsibility for about $1 million in safety zone costs, County Councilman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor, said this week.
Lee thought he could have persuaded the County Council to go as high as $3.5 million, plus the $1 million safety-zone expense.
That would have covered the $3.5 million the city loaned itself for airport operations.
But the two governments never reached an accord, and any thought of doing business with the county is on hold while the city negotiates with the private buyer, Anderson said.
Trying to get the most money for the property is "simply a matter of due diligence," he added.
The facility long has been a drain on city finances. Figures released in May showed a two-year operating deficit of $550,000.
Estimates on the value of the airport and adjacent land vary widely.
"The numbers that have been kicked around run from $3.5 million to $20 million, depending on how you look at the properties and their future uses," Anderson said.
He hopes to wrap up negotiations by the end of February.
Lee was deeply disappointed.
"I do believe the appropriate owner is Pierce County," he said.
The airport is a city-owned island in the unincorporated Gig Harbor area. It has long generated ill will among neighbors, who complain about aircraft noise and worry the 5,002-foot runway might be lengthened to accommodate even larger planes.
The city's 20-year plan does not contemplate such an extension.
Although Lee thinks "the general-aviation airport provides a great service," he had hoped the county could transform some of the unimproved property into trails for hiking and horseback riding, an off-leash dog park and other recreational uses.
Now he's thinking about negotiating with a private owner for some of those amenities.
Nearby resident Carl Geist, who serves on a commission formed to resolve the rift between the city and the county, isn't opposed to a private sale.
But he added, "The big thing is we don't want the runway expanded."
Any plan to lengthen the runway would require Federal Aviation Administration and county approval.
The FAA hasn't publicly commented on the possible sale to a private buyer, and a spokeswoman wasn't available for comment Friday.
Much of the airport development has been done with FAA grants.
"I can't imagine a private entity owning the airport," said Mike Pickett, owner of Pavco Aviation, which has operated at Tacoma Narrows for 25 years.
"The city doesn't get to just put out a 'For Sale' sign and make a deal without FAA approval."
Besides, he said, the city's numerous lease agreements with businesses might further complicate a sale.
Pickett's business includes aviation fuel sales, aircraft maintenance and a flight school.
He had nothing but vitriol for the city's handling of the airport.
"It should be a showplace for them . . . and they haven't operated it that way," he said. "I don't know why the city didn't turn the airport over to the county."
Then Pickett answered his own thought.
"They got greedy," he said.
The county's Lee was a bit more understanding.
"I don't fault Eric Anderson for any of this," he said. "He's looking out for the best interests of the city as I'm looking out for the best interests of the county. The dollar speaks pretty loudly."
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SIDEBAR (A12): Narrows Airport by the numbers
A study published in September in conjunction with Pierce County's interest in buying the Tacoma Narrows Airport gave these figures:
annual indirect benefits to area, in dollars
estimated value, in dollars
annual payroll, in dollars
acres of land
indirect jobs provided
City of Tacoma-owned buildings
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