Central Washington University is making preparations to take its aviation program airborne — to Yakima.
New Delhi, January 13, 2019: The university will present a potential partnership with McAllister Field in Yakima to the Washington State Legislative Aviation Caucus in Olympia on Jan. 24. In doing so, it will request approximately $5 million in state funding for building renovations at the field and $9 million for hangar construction.
The aviation program, numbering approximatelny 250 students, accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of all takeoffs and landings at Bowers Field. In fall semester of 2018, the university began hiring its own flight instructors and leasing and purchasing aircraft for the program. The program also began to occupy hangar space and fixed-base functions the year before according to the reports published in dailyrecordnews.com .
In the fall of 2017, the university embarked on a study to determine what options were available for the aviation program. Some of the options included moving the program to McAllister Field in Yakima or the outright purchase or long-term lease of Bowers Field. In May 2018, the report concluded in recommending that the program remain in Ellensburg and that the university enter into a joint-operating agreement with the county.
In July 2018, county commissioners voted 2-1 to initiate a memorandum of agreement with the university, the purpose being to explore the possibility of a joint operating agreement. Under the agreement, the university would be responsible for aeronautical operations, staffing issues such as hiring an airport manager, lease negotiations and general maintenance and upkeep of the runway. The county would be responsible for outside, industrial and business park operations. The university stated its goal was to have the agreement finalized by February 2019.
Last fall, Commissioner Cory Wright said questions began to surface regarding the legal stability of the joint-operating agreement. He said there were questions he felt weren’t confirmed, one of which was the funding streams that CWU could bring to Bowers Field.
“They, on their own explanation can’t bring state money to the airport without actually physically owning it or having a management agreement in place,” Wright said. “That was part of the effort behind the (joint-operating agreement).”
Wright said another misunderstanding was that the Federal Aviation Administration would provide funding based on the amount of aircraft operations at Bowers Field. Because the university flight program accounts for the majority of those operations, there was a fear that the airport would not be a candidate for funding if the flight program was moved to another location.
“That was proven to actually not be true,” he said. “We are in fact right now receiving FAA funding for our airport master plan, which is a requirement for further funding. Now we are eligible for operations and maintenance grants.”
In order to receive funding for the proposed runway extension project, Wright said the airport must have at least 500 critical aircraft operations within a year.
“The critical aircraft size is like a Citation business jet,” he said. “Central doesn’t fly those. It’s inapplicable.”
According to the reports published in dailyrecordnews.com an underlying legal issue that caused concern was whether the university was allowed to co-operate an airport with a municipality. In a November letter to Gaudino, Wright said Kittitas County Deputy Prosecutor Neil Caulkins looked into the matter and concluded that the proposed agreement was statutorily prohibited. Caulkins noted that as CWU does not own an airport, they would have to operate the airport to fit the statute. Operation is defined as being through a “governing body,” and the “governing body” is defined in the context of the state as being the Secretary of Transportation.
“Hence, the only state agency that seemingly could ‘operate’ an airport (that it didn’t own) would be the DOT,” Caulkins wrote in his opinion. “Said another way, a joint-operation agreement between the county and state must be signed on to by the Secretary of Transportation (not CWU folks), and the DOT Secretary is not going to have authority to enter into an agreement on behalf of CWU.”
Gaudino responded in a letter expressing his surprise by the legal opinion produced by the county. He said the university reached out to Washington State Assistant Attorney General Alan Smith for his opinion, and he concluded that his review of the code showed that CWU has the authority to “enter into such contracts as the trustees deem essential to regional university purposes.”
“In short, CWU does have the authority under RCW 28B.35.120 to purchase, lease, or construct and operate its own airport in support of its aviation program,” Smith wrote in his opinion. “Because CWU has such authority, it also has the authority to enter into an interlocal agreement with the County under RCW 39.34 governing the joint sponsorship and/or operation of Bowers Field.”
Gaudino also addressed a letter sent to him in October from the commissioners, which said that further discussions under the memorandum of agreement toward a co-sponsorship or co-management of Bowers Field is not in the public interest of airport users of county residents.
“In our view this conflict appears to be unresolvable,” Gaudino wrote. “The Commissioners’ changing position in a matter of a few months without public hearings and their late and disingenuous assertion of a legal impediment to the stated goals of the (memorandum of agreement) gives me little confidence that the County will work in good faith to accomplish the purpose of the (joint operating agreement). Nor does it appear that the Commissioners are interested in having the (joint operating agreement) continue its work or in receiving its recommendations.”
On Tuesday, Wright received a phone call from university president James Gaudino informing him that the university was seeking state funding to move the flight training portion of the program to Yakima. He was informed that the university was planning on partnering with Perry Technical Institute for classroom space, would lease some hangars at the airport and potentially build new ones. Although he didn’t have comprehensive details, he said it would be possible for freshmen in the program to continue with simulator and ground training at Bowers Field and then transition to Yakima.
“Given Central’s aspirations to expand this program, they do have big ambitions which is great,” Wright said. “I’d love to see them succeed in that.”
Wright said given the program’s expansion, which has seen a rate of 70 percent enrollment increase between 2014 and 2017, he has concerns about whether Bowers Field can handle the increased capacity on its own. He said after talking to people in the aviation field, it is uncertain if the airspace above Bowers Field could handle air traffic on par with the program’s growth.
“I think at some point it was inevitable that the university would look to expand,” he said. “There’s different aspects of it. You have an uncontrolled field here, you have controlled airspace down there. Single-engine planes maybe work better here, and you can run the multi-engine planes down there. There’s an evolution of the program, I just hope that for them that maybe this wasn’t premature. I would certainly love to take the time to explore this further, but I understand that they have to do what they need to do.”
Wright said he feels that Bowers Field still has plenty of untapped potential, and that he would like to see it grow with along with the flight program. Although he feels that the memorandum of agreement was done in good faith,
“Do I want to see them out there? Yes, I do,” he said. “I just want to make sure that we are going down the due diligence process correctly and making sure that we have all this knowledge in place before we encumber ourselves.”
CWU Office of the President Chief of Staff Linda Schactler said the historic position of the county is the maintenance and upkeep of Bowers Field has been prohibitively expensive, and that county has asserted over the years that they do not have the money to do so. She said as a result, the airport’s condition has deteriorated, resulting in the closure of runway 7-25 last March.
“We had airplanes trapped in a hanger this fall because the doors were rusted shut,” she said. “There’s weeds growing out of the pavement, and so on.”
“Just relying on lease revenue is just not working,” she said. “It’s never brought in enough money.”
With Commissioners O’Brien and Jewell having departed, Schactler said the tone around the memorandum of agreement changed rapidly.
“A new batch of commissioners came in and they said, ‘No thank you, we think we’ll just go ahead and do what we’ve been doing,’” she said.
Schactler pointed out there are four airports in the state that operate under joint sponsorship agreements, and it seems to be working in those cases.
“The sticking point is there’s no vision, no evidence that anything will be better going forward,” she said. “There’s no evidence that it will continue to do anything but continue to fall apart.”
Dailyrecordnews.com further added that when the university’s board of trustees agreed to look into a joint-operating agreement last spring, Schactler said they made it clear that having a backup plan was critical. She said besides looking at McAllister Field, they also visited Pangborn in Wenatchee and Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake.
Because the university has an extension in Yakima, Schactler said they were especially interested in that location. She said they had a positive meeting with the airport manager in Yakima, as well as state senators from the area. She said they were invited down again last month to meet with Perry Technical Institute.
“We talked about all kinds of possibilities,” she said. “Purchasing and renovating a building that is already there and then building a hanger.”
About two weeks ago, Schactler said the senators invited the university to present the potential arrangement to the Washington State Legislative Aviation Caucus in Olympia on Jan. 24.
“We did not want anybody to be surprised that we were doing that,” she said.
Despite the forward progress being made on the partnership in Yakima, Schactler said the university would prefer to keep its program in Kittitas County.
“This is where we want to be,” she said. “We want our students to be on campus. We love this community. This is our home, and this is the best solution. However, if we can’t make it work, we have to do something. We have 250 students in these programs, and we have to serve them.”