Wednesday, January 8, 2003 High hopes for little airport By Paula Lavigne Sullivan The Tacoma (WA) News Tribune The gaze of luncheon diners followed the descent of a single-engine Cessna 172 as it flew in over a carpet of trees toward the runway at the Tacoma Narrows Airport. Pilot Larry Bielstein, 66, had just taken a quick Saturday morning spin over the Tacoma Narrows as seagulls skimmed the turquoise water below and a motor boat left a frothy trail on its way north under the bridge. Pilots who fly into the city-owned general aviation airport say it's one of the most scenic and safest approaches in the region because of its perch on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. But while it offers a pleasant view from above, the situation on the ground has until recently been dire. Grass grew on runways. Hangars leaked and hangar doors stuck. Two aviation businesses failed, and the restaurant was shut down. "I saw the airport generally deteriorate," said Bielstein, a retired Air Force colonel who has been flying small planes out of Tacoma Narrows for about 11 years and belongs to a flying club called Reach for the Sky. Pilots and tenants blame problems on the City of Tacoma's poor management and ignorance of the aviation business. But the city's new airport managers see a bright future for the airport and have pledged to make needed repairs and lure new tenants. The city took out a $2.5 million loan in November to buy a failing aviation business and has promised to do a better job maintaining its hangars. Airport manager Deena Turmo is trying to find other aviation-related businesses to come to the airport, with the hope that in a few years the airport will start making, instead of losing, money for the city. Over the next two years, the city plans to spend $300,000 of the loan on repairs and already has sketched out a schedule for 2003, Turmo said. Pilots and tenants view the city's pledge with cautious optimism. "I think people are very curious. I think they feel some things are happening here, and they want to participate," Turmo said. "They realize we are on the edge here and it could, dare I say, take off." Tacoma has operated the airport since it opened in 1963. While the city has talked to Pierce County and the Port of Tacoma about buying the airport, neither has expressed interest. Federal law prohibits Tacoma from selling it to a private buyer. That means it's up to the city to make improvements. One of the most noticeable recent improvements is the opening of a new restaurant to replace one that closed two years ago. A Taste of Eden, which leases a city-owned building, opened in December and now serves a busy breakfast and lunch crowd. There's also a new sign welcoming people to the airport. The grass has been mowed, weeds trimmed back. And some city hangar renters were pleasantly surprised to find their hangar doors greased. News of the city's plans sparked a gathering of the loosely organized Tacoma Narrows Pilot and Tenant Association, which hadn't met in at least three years. About 70 people, including Turmo, showed up. Jim Griffith, a commercial airline pilot who keeps a single-engine Piper Comanche at Tacoma Narrows, had been the association's president. "The pilots have mixed emotions here," Griffith said. "We do see some light at the end of the tunnel." But Griffith said some pilots, upset about poor airport conditions, have taken their business to other small airports, such as Pierce County Airport in South Hill. Tacoma Narrows could attract some of the overflow corporate travel at Sea-Tac if it only had more services, such as a rental car agency, to accommodate business travelers, said John Nance, 56, an Alaska Airlines pilot and aviation analyst. "If this facility is managed correctly, the airport will become very profitable and will be a feather in the cap of whoever the landlord is," Griffith said. One of the city's first moves to get more involved at the airport was to buy out Crossings Aviation, which owned 55 hangars and was falling into bankruptcy. The city took out a $2.5 million loan for the purchase and for repairs, and it plans to pay it back using the revenue from hangar rentals. When the hangars' ownership switched from a private to public operation they were subject to a 13 percent state tax. The last-minute rent hike didn't go over well with the pilots. Catherine Mitchell, assistant director of Tacoma's transportation services division, acknowledged the city didn't prepare the tenants for the change. "We didn't handle that well," she said. Hangar rental is more expensive here than in Bremerton or Olympia, but the demand is great because there are so few hangars, Bielstein said. He was one of about 30 people on a waiting list for hangars and just got his spot in November. One of the roadblocks to building any new structures has been the struggle to get building permits, Mitchell said. Although the City of Tacoma owns the airport, the land is in unincorporated Pierce County and the county issues building permits. A group of citizens who live near the airport and former Pierce County Councilwoman Karen Biskey have opposed any airport expansion. Their opposition made it almost impossible to move forward with any building or improvement project, said Mike Pickett, owner of Pavco Flight Center. The city already has agreed not to expand the runway, which nearby residents feared would be used to land large commercial jets. Attached Photo: Pilots optimistic about Tacoma plans - Pilot Larry Bielstein, 66, takes off in a Cessna 172 from Tacoma Narrows Airport on Tuesday. He is a flight instructor for the flying club Reach for the Sky.