Renewed interest in county's airport spur hopes of growth

Updated: Oct 2, 2021

The departure of Linn County’s road and bridge supervisor and the transfer of the zoning director to another department nearly three months ago set in motion a series of job reassignments in the courthouse annex.

That included a shift in management of the Linn County Airport. Although the former road supervisor was in charge of the 3,000-foot asphalt ribbon landing strip, the Linn County Commission moved much of the management responsibility to the Economic Development Director Jessica Hightower with help on construction of roads/taxiways from Shaun West, who was hired last month to fill the road and bridge supervisor position.

Once on board, they began working to take care of some issues that had fallen by the wayside, including repairs to the credit card-operated fuel tank that had apparently not been working properly for weeks. West worked to get the pump repaired and back online.

Meanwhile, Hightower worked to gather a committee of ten people with aviation knowledge and experience to brainstorm on how the airstrip could develop into something more.

Members of the committee include Pleasanton City Councilman Aaron Portman, long-time area pilot Clarence Easley, Randy Shannon, Dave Fisher, Greg Paul, Ted Van Meter, Gary Troth, Scott Lindell and West and Hightower as county government representatives.

In addition to her title as head of economic development, Hightower gained another label, airport manager.

Hightower is the first to admit that she lacks aviation experience, except to hop on a commercial flight. “I don’t know much about airports at all,” she said. However, she also said the committee has been very helpful.

“They are a great source of knowledge, and they’re willing to share,” she said.

The airport has seen its share of critics. Many county taxpayers did not share the vision when county commissioners built the asphalt slab in the middle of a hayfield.

And even now, some on the committee say the runway is not substantial enough to support the weight of larger corporate aircraft.

In laying out the airport, the county created 24 lots selling for $20,000 each. When it was discovered that utilities ran under part of one lot, a portion of it was abandoned and the other part combined with an adjoining lot to make one larger lot with a higher price tag.

Many on the committee own lots, and few of them own more than one.

In its first meeting in July, the committee explored a number of subjects, but in its second meeting last week, it began to focus on developing the resources the airport already has.

Some of the primary focuses will be on increasing the tax base, work on making profit from fuel sales and even work to get more hangars built.

In the public meetings about the comprehensive plan last month, it was pointed out that tourism pumps near $8 million into the local economy. Much of that revenue comes from sales at Casey’s General Store in Pleasanton and D’s Truck Stop outside of Prescott, which draw in visitors traveling U.S. 69 Highway.

Hightower said development at the airport could act in the same capacity. For example, someone flying a private airplane from Texas to Wisconsin might find the Linn County strip a good place to refill their fuel tank and be quickly on their way.

Or if someone located a restaurant near the runway similar to that at the Miami County Airport, they would catch a meal too. “I would love to have a restaurant go in there,” she said.

“If it developed enough traffic, it could be very important to the county, said David Fisher of Centerville, one of the committee members. Fisher is a retired businessman and a former commuter pilot and flight instructor.

“It needs to be managed,” he said. “The challenge right now is no one in the county has the experience to manage it.”

Fisher said the county needs to find a way to promote the airport and manage it properly.

He agreed that the location of the airport made it very similar to a fuel and food stop along U.S. 69. “It’s a good opportunity,” he said, adding that it definitely needed more traffic.

The airport should be able to contribute to the county’s coffers, Fisher said. As a former businessman, he hopes he can help make that happen.

Ted Van Meter of Pleasanton owns Iron Horse Aviation, an airplane maintenance and inspection shop. It is the only business located at the airport now, and it uses space in a hangar built by fellow committee member Randy Shannon to house an airplane.

With 30 years of experience in aircraft maintenance and repairs, Van Meter said he would like his shop to be a full-time job. However, for now, there is not enough traffic through the airport.

When he bought a lot at the airport three years ago, he hoped the county would move faster to develop it. “My intent was to put a hangar there,” Van Meter said.

For now, however, that isn’t likely. A shortage of construction materials has sent prices soaring, and expected taxes on the property have pushed that dream aside, at least temporarily.

Part of the problem with taxes is that the City of Pleasanton incorporated the airport into its city limits. Van Meter figures his tax bill would be at least $12,000 annually after a hangar was built, and that would push payments on the building plus taxes to about $2,500 monthly.

That’s as much as three times what it would have cost him when he first purchased the lot.

Still, Van Meter said the renewed interest in the airport by the Linn County Commission is encouraging. He said the committee brings much needed expertise to developing it.

He hopes the county will be able to take advantage of getting state funds for airport development.

However, he also sees the need for the county to set aside a budget for the airport. Currently, any expenses like the recent upgrading of the roads/taxiways come out of the county’s general fund.

In the past, as airport lots were sold, the money was put into the general fund, and so have the property taxes paid by lot owners. But it’s not enough to get the kind of development that’s needed to make the airport self-sustaining down the road, he said.

“You can’t finance an airport on the sales of lots,” he said.

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