Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Rio Vista airport struggles in sagging economy
By Roman Gokhman
The Contra Costa (CA) Times
Small hobby airports in Rio Vista and Byron are looking for ways to stay aloft financially as they navigate headwinds brought on by the sagging economy and competition from municipal airports that are closer to urban centers and feature more amenities.
The Rio Vista Municipal Airport is turning to a promotional campaign to find tenants and keep itself in the black.
"Interest in general aviation is waning here," said John Andoh, Rio Vista's transit and airport coordinator.
The Rio Vista Municipal Airport has seven empty spots in its 48-space hangar, an unusually high number of vacancies, Andoh said.
"It's still a concern because we are used to being full and with people on waiting lists," he said.
The vacancies began to accumulate in February and reached a high of 10 before Andoh found three tenants in August.
Rio Vista's promotional campaign is similar to those that condominium complexes use to attract new clients. Starting in September, new clients will receive one month rent-free if they pay for 11 months. Existing clients who get a friend to sign a one-year lease also will receive one month free.
The financial challenges facing the Rio Vista airport also exist at the rural Byron Airport in East Contra Costa County. Despite having completely booked hangars, as well as several businesses paying rent at the airport, the Byron airstrip would be operating about $200,000 in the red if it were not subsidized by a fund -- separate from county control -- shared with the busier Buchanan Field in Concord.
Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, of Discovery Bay, said she views the Byron Airport as a future investment that will bring jobs and commerce to East Contra Costa because it lies close to San Joaquin and Alameda counties, as well as the Interstate 5 corridor.
"There's big potential for it to grow and flourish," she said.
Keith Freitas, Contra Costa County airport director, said that as the area is developed and more businesses arrive, the airport will break even. But that won't happen until after the economy improves.
In Rio Vista, Andoh said he has only $5,000 in reserves before the city airport fund runs out of money. In the past, the city has borrowed from other funds to cover a deficit in the airport fund. That is no longer an option because the city has a general fund deficit.
"We would have to borrow from other funds," Mayor Jan Vick said.
Andoh said his airport has several disadvantages, including its location across the Antioch Bridge, which requires a toll to cross. Some potential customers have been choosing either Buchanan Field or the Stockton airport to avoid paying a toll.
The airport also lacks a cafe, a car rental agency and a fixed-base operator that services mechanical needs and pumps gas.
The fixed-base operator would pay the airport a fee to run the business there. However, Andoh cannot find one interested in his airport.
"We need to find out what we could do to make our airport attractive to them," he said.
To compete with other airports, Andoh said Rio Vista charges less to house larger aircraft; fees range from $263 to $394 per month, depending on the size. Buchanan Field, meanwhile, charges about $168 to $708, depending on the size of the hangar. Byron airport's monthly hangar fee is about $251.
Andoh said Rio Vista also is using grant money to shore up runway drainage and electrical lighting. He said he's applying for other grants and searching for companies to rent office space at the airport to raise additional cash.
Freitas said Byron still has a waiting list 56 names long for 24 county-owned spots because it draws customers from Discovery Bay, Brentwood, Antioch and Mountain House.
"With the economy the way it is, we do go deeper into our waiting list," he said.
Byron Airport, like Rio Vista's, has no amenities, Freitas said.
Freitas has researched the possibility of finding a fixed-base operator for the Byron airstrip but ran into the same trouble as Andoh.
"With the economy going sour, that's going to take time," he said.