Mich. Dept. of Transportation to Hand Over Airport to County

March 21, 2005
The buzz around Romeo State Airport these days isn't just from the planes overhead.
The buzz around Romeo State Airport these days isn't just from the planes overhead.

MDOT bought the airport for $5 million in 1998 and has offered to essentially hand over the nearly 300-acre property in Ray Township to Macomb County if it will keep the facility open. That transfer could be the latest step toward the state getting out of airport ownership.

"It's not absolutely clear what we'll do down the road," said Rob Abent, director of multi-modal transportation services for the Michigan Department of Transportation. "We only own a few airports, and we bought them to preserve what we believe is critical aviation infrastructure. ...

"But we think in a perfect world, if airports, aircraft and aviation facilities serve a local constituency primarily, decisions made concerning those airports should be in the hands of local units."

Romeo is the only state-owned airport to have been formally offered to a county, township or city. Macomb County officials are proceeding cautiously. On Wednesday, the county commission will decide whether it will conduct a study of the financial feasibility of the airport.

Macomb County Commissioner Don Brown, R-Washington Township, said the county should not take on a financial liability the state does not want.

"I think it's important that the county have a commercial airport in the county, and I'd like to see it maintained. ... But I'm kind of curious why they are coming back so soon with it," he said. "Beware of the state bearing gifts."

MDOT owns four other small airports, but has not had formal talks about transferring ownership of any of them. In at least one case, talks would appear to be a waste of breath. Canton Township Clerk Terry Bennett, who serves on the advisory board for Canton-Plymouth-Mettetal Airport, said that while that airport is in better financial shape than many, "We would prefer not to have the airport in Canton, period.

"If the state wants out of the airport business, there's probably a reason for it," she added.

Some pilots, like Dick Penman of Addison Township, are concerned that local governments would not be as inclined to keep airports open if they were losing money. Penman bases his home-built plane at the Romeo airport and flies out of there at least once a week.

"This is a crucial part of the infrastructure of the state," said Penman, who has flown out of Romeo since 1968. "Even sport pilots spend money on things like fuel and maintenance. ... And most of us are comfortable with the state owning the airports."

The airport is in a sparsely developed area just outside of the village it is named for. Just across 32 Mile Road from its terminal is a home still owned by the family of the man who carved the airport out of his farm in 1946.

In 2002, the last year a runway counter was used to collect data, the airport reported 35,000 takeoffs and landings. Its hangars are a mishmash of old construction, buildings moved from other airports that closed in recent years and a pair of relatively new buildings.

More than $2.8 million -- mostly federal and private money -- has been spent on the facility since 1998. It still needs much more work.

Conservatively, the state projected the necessary upgrades would cost $5 million. The terminal -- a flight school office and a lounge attached to what used to be a dairy barn -- needs to be replaced. That project is expected to cost at least $475,000. Driveways need to be built for better access to the facility. And airport officials say they believe the main runway needs to be extended to 5,000 feet -- which would allow small jets to use the airport, allow instruments to be used during landings and lower insurance costs -- for the airport to remain viable.

"It's critical," said Bill Decker, the airport's manager. "The airport dies without it."

Abent stressed that the state is not planning to close any airports, and the handover of any airport would be conditional on the local governments agreeing to keep the airports open. But at least one airport -- Prickett Grooms Field in Houghton County -- is no longer staffed, according to Tom Stenson, its longtime manager.

"There's nobody there -- never really was anyway -- but the county's looking at picking it up now," he said of the small strip next to a swamp. "The state gave up on it."