Planning the future of flight at Pearson Field

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Pearson Field is steeped in history, but 106 years of aviation tradition won’t pay the bills. That’s why the venerable airport is updating its business plan.

It’s just one aspect of an airport master plan that is scheduled to be completed in about six months.

The new master plan will include an analysis of the airport’s role in the community, an update of Pearson’s layout plan and a strategic update of the business plan.

“It’s not a plan to lengthen the runway or physically expand the airport,” Willy Williamson, airport manager, said at a recent open house to discuss the process. “It’s about the future of the airport, business wise, for the next 40 years.”

That means determining the best use of airport properties and a business model that can keep Pearson self-sustaining.

“Pearson has to make enough money to stay in the black,” Williamson said during an open house at Pearson Air Museum. “No tax dollars go to operate it.”

Pearson generates its income from rentals, including airplane hangars and facilities for the fixed-base operator’s maintenance hangar and flight school.

The airport’s annual operating budget is around $700,000 and it is paying its way, Williamson said.

“We are in the black,” he said.

That will change when payment on a bond increases for a five-year period, but, “we anticipated it, and money in our reserve account will keep us afloat,” Williamson said.

In March, local officials and the National Park Service signed a lease that provides a runway use agreement until 2051; that means planes will be able to take off and land at Pearson for the next 40 years.

But airport officials also want to establish a business model for the next 20 years, so future business partners and members of the aviation community can know what’s ahead for the next couple of decades.

Pearson’s most recent business plan was done in 2005. The one remaining item on that list is development of open space — about 8 acres in the northeast corner of the site. It’s a spot that could be turned into a revenue source.

Other people have had their eye on it as well.

“We’ve eyeballed that area for a park,” Dennis Zoet, chairman of the Hudson’s Bay Neighborhood Association, said during the open house.

That site is not flat and level, so any development likely would be done in stages. Several utility lines run through the upper portion, so it can’t be excavated down to runway level for use by airplanes.

One option for the lower portion of that acreage was on display during the open house, with a drawing that showed how three new hangars might fit on that parcel.

Williamson said 172 planes now are based at Pearson, which has a capacity of 175. If new hangars are built on that site (and some other projects are done), the airport would have a capacity of about 185 planes.

It’s not like Pearson has a wide-open list of options for development. The airport has restrictions that limit its business possibilities, Williamson said.

“The FAA has oversight of the property, and we have to get a release if we want to do anything that doesn’t involve airplanes. It’s also part of the historic reserve, so our use has to fit in with that,” Williamson said.

Whatever path development takes, nearby residents hope it won’t mean an increase in traffic along Fifth Street, Zoet said.

Some people had moved in thinking that their new home was going to be in a quiet, off-the-main-drag neighborhood.

“That is not the case. Traffic along there is — at least in terms of their perceptions — severe,” Zoet said.

“And cars are going over the speed limit. It’s a 25 mph limit, and they’re doing more than that,” Zoet said.