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Backers hope airport talk will result in action

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 2:15 pm

BIDDEFORD – Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant is hoping that with answers to their questions about airport operations in hand, city councilors will be willing to move forward in maintaining and improving the facility.

Casavant called a workshop held Jan. 29 regarding the future of the airport “a good starting point to begin open communication again.”

“That is the main point,” Casavant added. “The airport remains in limbo, and no one really wants to talk about it, yet it needs a decision in terms of where do we go from here. It cannot remain in a limbo of non-compliance.”

He praised Tom Bryand, the airport manager, for his presentation during the workshop and said the council asked a variety of “good questions” that night, including the actual number of landings and takeoffs at the airport annually. The council also wanted to know the costs associated with closing the airport, Casavant said.

In addition to collecting the information the City Council needs to make a decision about the fate of the airport, Casavant said, he’s also still weighing whether to appoint new members to the now-defunct Airport Commission.

He believes such a commission would help Bryand and the city in both promoting and maintaining the airport. Despite the commission’s role under the city charter as an advocate for the airport, Casavant said, appointing new members to the governing body would not be “a move for expansion, as so many people think that it is.”

“Instead,” he said, “it’s an attempt to gain control over what we have and decide what can (happen) if (the airport is) properly maintained and promoted as a general aviation airport.”

Casavant’s argument is that if the airport is an asset to the city, it needs investment from federal dollars.

“To deny federal dollars kills the airport, as the city cannot maintain it on its own,” he said.

Despite the long-standing divisiveness in Biddeford regarding the future of the airport, Casavant said he hopes the city can now make progress toward utilizing the facility

“Too much focus is spent on the he said/she said scenarios of the past. My thinking is that it is there. It exists. It needs investment. (So,) what do we do?” he said. “People can’t be entrenched in their thinking, but need to listen and think open mindedly.”

For people to have an open mind about the airport is all that Frank McCutcheon, who is the city employee responsible for day-to-day operations, wants, as well.

He thinks if people were more aware of what went on at the airport and its many indirect benefits to Biddeford and the region, they might be more supportive of the facility and more open to accepting federal dollars to maintain and improve it.

“People need to be shown the indirect value of the airport,” he said this week. “It really should be treated just like any other infrastructure.”

McCutcheon said people do use the airport, and when they fly in, they often rent a car and a hotel room and spend their money at local restaurants and shops.

He’s aware that there are a few city councilors who will never support the airport, but after the recent workshop, he hopes the majority of the council will be willing to accept the federal money needed to keep the facility operational.

“The airport kind of sits off by itself and not a lot of people really know what’s going on over here,” McCutcheon said. “There’s really a lot more activity than people realize.”

There have been several citywide referendums regarding the airport. In one, voters said city leaders should not allow the airport to expand. However, in the more recent referendum, held in 2008, residents voted overwhelmingly not to close the airport down.

According to city records, the airport brings in about $150,000 in revenue a year, which allows it to be self-sustaining day to day. However, that revenue does not begin to cover the costs of the maintenance projects that need to be done, Bryand said in a prior interview.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built the airport, located off Landry Street near the industrial park, in the mid-1930s. There is no control tower and only one runway, which is 3,011 feet long.

Since the airport was built, residential homes and three schools have all been built near the airport and along the approaches to the runway.

McCutcheon said that with the mayor making the airport a priority, he hopes to introduce more people to the facility.

“Anyone can stop by and find out what it’s all about,” he said.

Like Casavant, McCutcheon believes there is a need for the Airport Commission to be restarted, especially because right now so few people in Biddeford “truly understand how things work” at the facility.

“I believe the commission would help explain operations, why the airport relies on federal funds and how the airport really works. There are little tidbits of information that get out, but people never get the whole story,” he said. “It’s really not a drain on local taxpayers as some people are saying and believe.”

Casavant said there is no specific time frame for the council to discuss the future of the airport again, and McCutcheon said he’d like to see another information session, this time for the public at large.

Welcome to the discussion.