Port faces challenge in advancing airport

The Astoria Regional Airport supports an estimated 400 jobs but faces numerous challenges with aging infrastructure.

WARRENTON — The Astoria Regional Airport, operated by the Port of Astoria in Warrenton, is projected to make about $4,000 next year, not including capital investments and grants. But Port staff say the slim profit margin doesn’t account for the cost of repairing the airport’s World War II-era infrastructure and a myriad of other issues.

Amid declining grant resources, Port staff are searching for ways to make more money at the airport and repair a crumbling infrastructure that supports an estimated 400 jobs.

Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, said the airport in 2003 made an estimated $60,000 in profits. He pinned the airport’s declining fortunes over the past 15 years on several decisions that haven’t panned out financially.

The Port in the mid-2000s borrowed more than $3.5 million to expand and improve the aging hangars used by Lektro, a manufacturer of electric airplane tugs. The company is one of the region’s few high-tech manufacturers and employs nearly 100 people.

The Port makes a small profit from the Lektro lease over related debt, said Will Isom, the Port’s finance director, but that doesn’t take into account all the deferred maintenance on the aging hangars that past lease language has made the Port’s responsibility.

“We are hamstrung because of the Lektro lease,” Knight said during a recent budget hearing. “We’re hamstrung because the Coast Guard uses our facilities, and we don’t get compensated for it.”

The airport has also lost money from multiple rows of hangars added in the mid-2000s but never fully occupied; faces issues with sewage and intruding groundwater; and lacks direct access from U.S. Highway 101 to make the facility more attractive to business.

Further adding to the airport’s challenges are a dwindling supply of grant revenue the Port relies on to improve infrastructure. Knight has raised alarm bells about the state’s recent decision to close competitive bidding for its ConnectOregon infrastructure grant program. The state has focused the program through at least 2019 on several specific transportation projects.

The move takes away valuable local matches for larger Federal Aviation Administration grants and could lead to the Port’s and other airports becoming federally decertified, Knight said. The airport has so far received about $12 million worth of FAA funding, he said. More than $4 million is expected in the next couple of years for runway and taxiway work.

Knight recently laid out his staff’s plan to increase the airport’s annual revenue by $51,000 in the near future from increased hangar rentals; two new executive hangars for Life Flight and an undisclosed private party; and a significant increase in an existing lease to the Columbia River Bar Pilots after the expiration of prior rent credits.

The Port has also struggled since 1990 to develop the Airport Industrial Park on the approach to the airport. The Port recently submitted a grant to study the feasibility of turning much of the industrial park into wetlands surrounding an environmental research station the agency would lease out to other groups. If the Port could earn even 2.5 cents per square foot each month off the land, that would increase annual revenues at the airport by $65,000 annually, Knight said.

“We’re paying for those mistakes in the past,” Knight said at a recent budget hearing. “But we’re slowly but surely making headway toward making the airport get to a break-even point.”

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