Shalersville Twp. – Portage County Regional Airport’s seven-member board of directors dreams about extending the runway to 5,000 feet so that it can accommodate bigger corporate jets. This, in turn, would attract substantial industries to the nearby light industrial park along State Route 44. And this equation adds up to more jobs and economic development for one of Ohio’s least prosperous counties.
This argument was proposed before a crowd of nearly 70 township residents, county commissioners and business leaders who gathered for an informational meeting November 17 at Shalersville Town Hall. The new board wanted to gain a sense of public sentiment about their 10-year plan before making incremental steps in that direction with a $150,000 capital improvement plan due to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) on December 18. Such steps would include building more hangars and acquiring more land around the airport to secure more buffer zone around its perimeter to protect it from residential encroachment and to allow for future growth.
“However, the local economy and its citizens must agree before we expand the runway,” said board president John Trew. “The FAA won’t release federal grant funds for the expansion unless and until we can prove the need for it.”
Currently, the airport’s runway measures 3,500-by-75 feet. Its asphalt surface and markings on the runway are “in poor and weathered condition,” according to AirNav.com, the official website of FAA information for general aviation pilots. In addition, “all areas off runway surface are soft when wet or thawing.”
Since it was established by the state in the 1960s as a tool for economic stimulus, the Portage County airport has struggled to generate enough income to be self-sustaining, despite its sales of avgas, its rental hangar space and privately-operated FBO and flight center. Most recently, the airport has failed to collect 50 percent of the user fees owed by private pilots in 2010. It has survived with government grants (95 percent from the FAA and five percent from the county’s general fund).The 76-acre, publicly-owned airport is managed by John Siman. In 2011, the board must begin paying back to local taxpayers a $400,000 loan taken out by a previous board of directors. The board must pay $41,000 per year plus interest over the next 10 years.
Posted airport operational statistics indicate that the airport supports an average of 26 takeoffs/landings per day, or about 9,600 flights annually. Half of the traffic is from transient general aviation, 35 percent from local pilots, 14 percent from air taxi services, and two percent from National Guard military exercises. Most of the traffic comes from single-engine planes, with a handful of multi-engine airplanes, ultralights and a medical LifeFlight helicopter rounding out the types of aircraft flying in and out of the local airport.
While all airport board members voiced support of the proposed expansion — if and when a proven need could justify the investment — nearly 75 percent of the community members at the meeting opposed it. Despite proponents’ talk of the economic benefit the airport expansion could bring, residents declared they preferred to retain the township’s quiet rural character instead. Citing the fast-paced build-up then recent decline of Streetsboro’s business district, residents raised concerns that a busier airport would mean less green space, more traffic and more noise, but not necessarily a better way of life in Shalersville Township.
“People like Shalersville as it is and we’re trying to keep it that way,” said one resident. Another said, “This runway expansion plan is just a hobby for rich people and their planes. We don’t have any planes, so why should we support the expansion?”
Attorney and meeting moderator Steve Wilson replied, “If this is just a rich people’s hobbyist project, I say let’s close down the airport altogether. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a tool for economic growth.”
County commissioners voiced tentative support (outgoing commissioner Charles Keiper was not present). Chris Smeiles was generally in favor, saying “An expanded airport would be good for the entire county. However, the airport first needs a solid revenue source and a viable business plan.” Maureen Frederick voiced doubts about it, warning against the temptation to take on a “build it and they will come” attitude. Commissioner-elect Tommie Jo Marsilio said the board had gotten ahead of itself, comparing their proposal to that of a home-owner struggling to make his mortgage payment, yet considering it was a good time to build an addition to the house. “It just doesn’t make sense to add on without making the mortgage first.”
Dick Bonner, owner of the airport FBO, argued in favor of the expansion, saying, “When a corporation looks to locate here, they’re looking for an airport that can support their corporate jets. Streetsboro is done. They’re out of industrial land. The next wave of expansion will be here, and we need to get ready for it.”
Businessman and former airport board member Mike Price agreed, saying,” Don’t minimize ‘if they build it, they will come.’ It’s actually true. Portage County needs jobs. This is a worthwhile project to consider. Planes are noisy, but so is progress.”