Rochester airport gets a new life as state facility

Whether it wants it or not, the Pease Development Authority will soon have official ownership of Skyhaven Airport in Rochester.

The 175-acre airfield, home to over 100 private planes, has long been a controversy in the city. At the center of the controversy is ownership of the general aviation airport, which was originally built in the 1930s and acquired by the state in 1968. General aviation airports are facilities that handle private planes, and don’t generally offer commercial passenger service.

Right now, Skyhaven is overseen by the State Aeronautics Commis-sion, a division of the Department of Trans-portation. It is operated on a day-to-day basis by Ossipee Valley Aviation LLC. The facility offers hangar space, flying lessons, fuel, aircraft rentals, maintenance and parts.

Rochester had been given the option of taking over Skyhaven Airport, under a lease arrangement with the state, and given a deadline of May 30 to execute that option. But after three separate city council votes, the takeover was defeated, largely because of citizen concern over the potential cost to taxpayers.

Mayor John Larochelle called the proposed takeover by Rochester a “financial liability for the city.” He cited the planned extension of the current runway as a risk to taxpayers, even though the federal government would pay for most of the cost.

“There’s a financial risk there that we would have to come up with the difference, and the question is whether the airport would run in the black or not. It’s possible that the airport might lose money.”

Larochelle was one of the councilors who ultimately voted to defeat the proposed takeover.

Larochelle also said the city already faces a substantial tax increase, and that the council might not appropriate the capital improvement funds needed to extend the runway.

The PDA takeover, he said, is an attractive option.

“They actually manage an airport, and there is some indication that they can actually take the money available to them and spend it on improvements to Skyhaven. In my opinion, the better way to insure that Skyhaven would be properly developed is for the PDA to take it over.”

Asset or liability?

PDA Executive Director Dick Green said that over the past 20 years, the State DOT has sought to turn the airport over to a new owner. Green said that the failure of the takeover vote in Rochester by the May 30 deadline gave the go-ahead for the PDA to take charge of the airport.

“We will have a lease with the state to manage it for the state of New Hampshire. It will remain a state-owned airport, but managed by us instead of the DOT,” Green said.

Green said that Skyhaven is not a moneymaker for the state. “It does well to break even,” he said. “I would like it to make money, I would like to situate it so that it is making money, but in the current situation we’ve got to make some major investments and improvements there to even have a chance of making money, and that’s what we would be committed to.”

Green said most airports don’t make money on their own. They raise revenues by leasing hangar space, selling fuel and leasing land near the facility for other uses. In the case of Pease, he said, “even our airport at Pease as a stand-alone airport does not make money. However, the Pease Tradeport does make money, and we support the airport.”

State Aeronautics Director Jack Ferns agreed that general aviation airports like Skyhaven don’t make money.

“Many airports, in financial terms, are looked at as a liability rather than an asset.”

The exception, he said, is when New Hampshire International Speedway plays host to NASCAR races.

“The airports are full, and the operators sell more fuel during that two-week period than they will the rest of the year,” said Ferns.

Ferns noted that the operators of general aviation airports generally support each other as a group, rather than compete for business. “Airport managers get together on a regular basis and discuss issues. They work as a team, because they recognize that what is good for one is good for the whole. They pull each other up by the bootstraps.”

He added that Manchester-Boston Regional Airport will even give surplus or unneeded equipment to smaller airports to help support them.

Revenue for Concord

Concord Airport is one example of a successfully operated municipal airport, generating a profit to the city, said Ken Lurvey, the city’s business development coordinator.

“When I took over managing all the leases at the airport, we were able to turn around what was a deficit operation,” he said. That was 20 years ago, when the city was subsidizing the airport to the tune of $187,000 a year.

“When I took over, getting fixed operators, getting private hangars and leasing land to the National Guard, we ended up with revenue of half a million dollars a year.” Lurvey said the city doesn’t have to subsidize the airport now, and any profit goes back into maintenance and improvements of the facility.

According to Lurvey, Concord Airport is poised for more growth and potential revenue. “We’re putting out a request for proposals for a private developer to build an office building on airport land,” he said. Land would be leased to the developer, potentially housing the Civil Air Patrol and other office space, which would generate more revenue to the city, he said.

He is drafting another RFP that could result in the leasing of airport land for more hangars. Lurvey called interest in such an expansion “relatively high, surprising in that we’re in a sluggish economy and the cost of aviation fuel is high. The demand is still out there, so it seems as though we’ll continue to grow our facilities here through a public-private partnership.”

As for Skyhaven Airport, while the state mandated the PDA to take over the facility by July 1, PDA Executive Director Green said, “We’re now in the throes of putting together the agreement,” adding, “I’m not sure that we can get it done by July 1, but we’re certainly going to get it done as soon as we can.”