Ghost airport? Hardly so
EVART — When a recent news service story first saw the light of day, many people throughout the Evart area were left rubbing their eyes and wondering what the heck was going on.
An article published by CAPCON, a news service of the Mackinac Center For Public Policy, referred to Evart’s municipal airport as Michigan’s “bridge to nowhere” and follow-up stories called the facility a “ghost airport.”
Article author Jarrett Skorup claims the airport has “two flights a day, one runway, zero employees, and five “likes” on the Facebook page.”
“Yet,” writes Skorup. “The federal government spent $150,000 on the airport in 2012 while state and local taxpayers spent thousands more.”
The author goes on to point out the silliness of having an airport in Evart since there are five other airports within 30 miles.
He states the only reason there is an airport in Evart is “...to justify continually receiving the (federal) funds”
Amongst the other concerns for Skorup and the Mackinac Center team is the fact that there is “ ...an issue with deer entering the runway.”
Worst, however, are the “entitlements.” Mackinac Center has a problem with “entitlements” and it is a great word to use when trying to stir up an audience.
Evart city manager Zack Szakacs is mildly confused. Despite being quoted and misquoted in the CAPCON article, he never met the author; never once spoke with him; and doesn’t know if the writer has ever visited Evart or not.
In fact, the only communication Szakacs had with Skorup was in the form of a questionnaire sent by e-mail to City Hall.
Having responded to the questionnaire as requested, Szakacs was surprised to see his answers “ ...so obviously twisted to fit some agenda.”
For example, in a follow-up story in The Blaze, (published the same day and based on the Mackinac Center article), writer Meredith Jessup notes: “Szakacs admits the airport has no employees and drains resources from local law enforcement who have to patrol the empty grounds.”
“I never said such a thing,” said the city manager.
In his response to Skorup’s question: “Does the airport employ anyone? Is it attended?” Szakacs wrote, “No, but it is patrolled by local law enforcement and the airport terminal can be accessed 24/7 by the pilots via combination lock.”
“Of course we patrol the airport,” said Szackas. “Just like we patrol the downtown business district, the schools, and the residential areas. That’s the police department’s job. The fact that we patrol the airport doesn’t mean that we maintain a 24-hour presence there anymore than the fact that we rattle doors in the business district means we have officers in every store all day, every day.
“Our police officers patrol the city. We also drive by the airport.. There really aren’t any “grounds” to patrol aside from an occasional check on the terminal building
“That is not a “drain on resources.” It’s our job.
“I never said it was a drain.”
Szakacs says it is less than accurate to say the airport “...has two flights per day.”
“We have days and even weeks in the winter when we may not even have one flight a day, but when weather permits; the vacation season is going strong; and SpringHill Camps are in session, there will often be many more than two, five, or eight flights on a given day,” he reported.
“It is inaccurate to try and average it out so simplistically. Just two weeks ago, we had five flights come in and land - and that was on a winter day.
“On any weekend in the summer we could have a low of eight flights and a high of 13 on one day.”
“Flying in Michigan can be pretty seasonal.”
The Mackinac Center article argues that the money requested and awarded the Evart airport operation is an “entitlement” and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
This is, once again, incorrect.
“The funding we applied for and received is not an entitlement and doesn’t involve the average taxpayers’ money,” said Szakacs. “It is funding generated by a tax applied to the purchase of aviation fuel.
“It is a fuel tax on airplanes. The money in this fund is money paid for by airplanes and users of airports, and it is returned to airports for operational and maintenance uses.
“The people of Evart, or wherever don’t pay anything into this funding, unless they are pilots purchasing gas for their planes - or buying tickets on an airline.”
The money collected through the aviation fuel tax is banked, builds up, and is distributed to qualifying airports through competitive grant funding programs.
The $150,000 awarded the Evart airport in 2012 was generated by pilots and airlines, and distributed to airports for a wide variety of projects. It was not collected from John Doe driving down U.S. 10 or living in Evart - unless John was a pilot fueling his plane.
Szakacs is shocked at the “bridge to nowhere” classification of Evart’s airport.
“This certainly isn’t a bridge to nowhere,” he said. “We have a functioning airport that is important to both pilots and planes, and to the community development plan as well.
“Even just as an emergency airport, we probably handle anywhere from ten to two-dozen medical emergency landings and takeoffs each year. I would never categorize that as a “bridge to nowhere.”
Even the terminal building at the airport could not be considered a drain of public resources.
The airport terminal was almost entirely constructed using funds generated through the collection of federal aviation fees mentioned previously
Again in this case, the Federal Aviation Agency received the money and dispersed it to individual states. Michigan’s DOT aeronautics division took control of the money and divided it up among the 55 qualifying airports located in this state.
There were some matching funds invested by the city, but it’s incorrect for anyone to think that local tax money was exclusively used to underwrite the terminal project.
The city’s match on the funding was 2.5 percent of the total cost.
The federal government, through aviation taxes, paid 95 percent. The MDOT aviation division paid 2.5 percent. The City of Evart paid 2.5 percent .
“This isn’t a “ghost airport’ by any stretch of the imagination,” said Melora Theunick, director of the Evart Local Development Finance Authority, (the office of which is located in the airport terminal building.)
“We have planes come in and out of here all the time - as the season allows. We even have planes landing and taking off on occasion during the winter.
“It is definitely worth keeping this facility open just for handling emergency medical response traffic, but the airport is used for so much more.”
Theunick reiterated the fact that grant moneys used in developing and maintaining the airport were not taken from local taxpayer’s, but rather from the aviation gas tax.
County Commissioner Roger Elkins noted he wished people wouldn’t so simplistically denigrate the worth of a facility such as the Evart Airport without even taking the time to visit, look over log books, and see what actually happens.
“The airport is important to Evart’s past, present, and certainly to our future.
“I have been at the airport on a busy weekend when there were millions and tens of millions of dollars worth of planes and jets sitting on the taxi ways,” he said.
“To call this a “ghost airport’ is almost irresponsible.”
Elkins can’t figure out why Evart was singled out for criticism when airports in Clare, Big Rapids, and Cadillac also receive aviation grant funding.
He also isn’t sure what is meant when the article author claims there are five airports within 30 miles of Evart.
“I guess he is considering a couple of grass airports - in Mecosta, Lake City, and maybe elsewhere - because there simply aren’t five operational airports in this immediate area,” he pointed out.
“I can’t imagine why the Evart airport should be considered unused, or unnecessary.”
State Senator Darwin Booher, R-Evart, was surprised at the tone of the CAPCON article.
“Frankly, I think this was a pretty unfortunate article,” said Booher. “A lot of people, including myself, worked long and hard to see the development of an airport in Evart become a reality.
“The vision of that community was basically tied to an industrial park that backed on to an airport.
“The vision became a reality, and there is a working airport as part of the complete package that anchors development.
“It was all part of the long range planning for Evart.
“It wasn’t, and the airport is not a “ghost airport” any more than Evart is a “ghost town.”
Booher noted that the creation of the airport in Evart was part of a carefully conceived 30-year development plan, and not some frivolous way of collecting pork-barrel funds.
“We had a vision for the community, and I can speak to it personally,” Booher continued. “Despite a temporary down-turn in the economy, a lot of us still have hopes for continued growth in Evart.
“Now, apparently some people think investing in small towns in Michigan is a waste of money.
“I have to disagree.”
State Rep. Phil Potvin, who until recently represented the City of Evart in the state legislature said he too was disappointed with the article.
“I certainly would never recommend withdrawing or limiting support for an airport such as that in Evart,” said Potvin.
“This is a community that still has industry, and certainly has potential for more industry in the future.
“We need to take care of the facilities that modern industry need and find attractive when considering a presence in a community - and when creating jobs.
“I’ve been to Evart Airport. I know planes make use of that facility and I would like to see the potential grow - with fuels tanks and hangers.”
And as for the “...deer entering the runway” issue. It might be noted that deer enter Evart everywhere - front lawns, Main Street, Riverside Park, U.S. 10, the high school football field, the Rails to Trails ...everywhere.
And deer enter airport runways everywhere - including Grand Rapid’s Gerald Ford Airport and Detroit’s Wayne County Metro.