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PAXTON — There are philosophical differences among members of the Paxton City Council regarding the future of the city-owned airport.
While some would like to see the airport maintained well into the future, Alderman Rick Wolfe voted three years ago in favor of closing the airport — a proposal the council defeated 8-3 — and said he would prefer to try to close it again.
“If it’s such a great thing, why doesn’t everyone have one?” Wolfe said during a discussion about the facility’s future Monday night, noting that no other town in Ford County has an airport.
City Clerk Stacy Jones, speaking as a taxpaying citizen, said she and other residents she has talked with said they would prefer to see the money spent maintaining the airport used to improve the city’s streets instead.
Wolfe asked two local pilots in attendance during Monday night’s airport committee meeting what they would like the city to do to help the airport. One of the pilots, Rob Steiger, a candidate for the city council in April’s election, said he wants to see the city make a commitment to move forward. Steiger said there is pent-up demand for hangar space by plane owners and suggested that if more hangars were to be built, pilots are willing to drive a distance in order to house their aircraft.
“Frasca, Kentland and Rantoul are full. An airport grows by having airplanes,” Steiger said.
Steiger said the council should also look into setting some fees for agricultural users of the airport. He said the runway is used frequently during the growing season by crop sprayers.
Rich Kingery, another pilot, said the airport’s appearance needs to be improved.
“I want to see it look presentable,” Kingery said.
Kingery said he would like to see a better sign, among other things.
Both pilots also would like the city to city to invest in a self-pay pump to improve fuel sales and eliminate the need for paying city employees overtime to go to the airport after business hours on weekdays and weekends to turn on the fuel pumps whenever pilots need to fuel up.
Street department Superintendent Randy Swan said the last time he researched purchasing such a pump, the price was prohibitive. But Steiger said Swan should check again because Steiger did not think the pump would cost $20,000. Steiger also said the city could adjust its fuel prices to cover credit card transaction costs.
Swan said the restrooms in the city hangar need to be gutted that most of the equipment at the airport is more than 35 years old. Kingery said the beacon needs electrical work.
Alderman Alan Meyer said he would like to see money put in next year’s budget to improve the restrooms.
“We need to do something with it or dispose of it,” he said.
But closing the airport is problematical because of contractual agreements with leaseholders, Meyer said. They own and pay taxes on their hangars but lease the ground the hangars sit on from the city.
Kingery said he would be happy to take aldermen to other airports in the region like Shelbyville and Kentland, Ind., which have secured grant money to make improvements.
Aldermen have thought in the past that with a fixed-base operator (FBO) and more activity at the airport the city would have a better chance of being awarded grants. It tried unsuccessfully a few years ago to get a grant for the resurfacing of its aging runway. But Wolfe questioned if there was enough to do at the airport to justify receiving a grant.
Also attending Monday’s meeting was Gifford resident Jef LeRette, who more than a year ago sought to lease the city-owned hangar at the local airport and serve as the facility’s FBO while also operating a skydiving school at the airport. LeRette said his new plan would be to operate the skydiving out of a friend’s hangar and not be FBO. He has withdrawn his request to serve alcohol to skydivers after their dives on what is city property and would not plan to host any large sky-diving events.
City Attorney Bob Martensen said he would look into the contract of the hangar lease holder to see if it prevented operating the school. Martensen said liability concerns would be covered by a waiver participants would be required to sign.
The council will discuss the airport at its regular February meeting.