Chuck Schulte of Caledonia questioning  the validity of the airport report at the hearing.
Chuck Schulte of Caledonia questioning the validity of the airport report at the hearing.
On March 26, nearly 70 people attended a public hearing on the future of the Houston County Airport (HCA).

Representatives from engineering firm Mead & Hunt gave a short presentation on the environmental assessment (EA) they have prepared on improvements to the facility, then turned the microphone over to residents.

Vernon Fruechte of rural Caledonia said, "While nothing is guaranteed, an investment in improving our airport to make it attractive for business aircraft is worth the risk. An airport with good facilities is an asset to our area... Our county needs to attract more job opportunities or we will fall further behind and continue to lose population."

Arlyn Frauenkron of Houston said, "I received my property tax statement courtesy of Mr. Davids this last week, and I am quite upset with a 26 percent tax increase.

"I'm a little bit upset about the government wanting to take more agricultural land away from farmers, and if we're going to invest the kind of money you're talking about, I'd like to see some financial returns.

"You have an airport in Winona that meets all the criteria, and you have an airport in La Crosse... Is there a return on this investment for the taxpayer? If there's not, then we should not go forward with it."

"We've got a resource here that I feel we're squandering," Caledonia resident Ron Schmal said. Describing himself as an aviation enthusiast, Schmal said improvements would "offer an opportunity for growth and expansion," and he termed the improvements "a quality of life issue" that would affect the overall population of Houston County.

Arne Beneke of New Albin, Iowa, said he's used the HCA for many years. "The point I'd like to make is that our airport is the easiest to fly into," he stated.

"There are many times throughout the year when La Crosse and Winona are fogged in... There are times when FedEx and UPS can't land there."

Tom Welscher of Caledonia said he owned land to the south and west of the airport.

"I have a lot of concerns on access to the last part of my land after they already decided to build a new airport," he said, adding that airport buildings put in two years ago (a washroom and well) are now cited as a reason to re-align the runway so that instrument approach can be reinstated.

"They put those right in the flight path only two years ago," Welscher repeated, "Was that to make us change and go your way again? To have to move the airport so you can take up more land? Now you're starting this, which is not right. Somebody should get fired."

Thor Kolle of Caledonia said he is president of the Friends of the Houston County Airport. He claimed that closing the airport would "cost you 10 times, if not more," than the $400,000 cited in the study.

The reason is that the FAA would not only demand repayment of grant money (with interest) going back 20 years, but the original land acquisition dollars would also be due.

Kolle said the friends group favored alternative four on the EA study (cost of $3.1 million). The FAA would pay 90 percent of the price tag, he reminded attendees.

Kolle added that his group was also working on a fixed base operator (FBO) agreement with the county, so the airport could be privately managed.

Such an arrangement could make the facility pay for its own maintenance, he stated.

"It is an asset to this community," Kolle said. "I've lived in 20 different states and many different towns. Every town that I've been in that didn't have an airport or closed the airport down had a sign on it saying, 'We're dying.'

"Every town that had an airport that was functioning and growing had a sign out saying, 'We're open for business.'"

Eric Benson said, "I am a tenant of the airport. I fly three and a half days a week on average out of there."

Benson said that since he located his business at the facility, he's averaged $50,000 in fuel purchases per year from the county.

"We (Houston County) get $150,000 in FAA funds every year for airport growth and development," he reminded the crowd.

"That's not from the general fund, but from the Aviation Trust Fund." The money comes solely from excise taxes on the aviation industry and from fees such as registrations, Benson said.

He added that 80 percent of the maintenance costs of the airport are paid for by the state of Minnesota from a state-run aviation trust fund.

"The FAA is putting money into airports because they believe in infrastructure, which makes the world go around," Benson said. "There's an economic benefit."

Citing MnDOT and University of Minnesota statistics, Benson said a straight-in instrument approach for commercial aircraft would generate over $230,000 in local economic value and create 4.02 jobs.

The HCA also provides a vital link to hospitals and would serve as a U.S. military base in an emergency, he added.

Chuck Schulte of Caledonia held up a copy of the EA study and asked, "How many in this room have read this?" Four or five hands rose.

"This study cost $150,000, and it has inaccuracies," Schulte continued. "First, the largest city in Houston County is not Caledonia, its La Crescent. Secondly, La Crosse is not 28 miles from Caledonia, it's 24.1. Its 28 minutes away, not 55. That changes the whole dynamic for the need for the airport."

Schulte said there are only 11 airplanes housed at the airport. At the 1969 dedication, it was stated that the facility would bring "general employment opportunities and new industry to the county," he pointed out.

"After 43 years, I would say that the theory of 'build an airport and industry and jobs will come' simply did not happen."

"There have been negative effects," Schulte said, citing lost property taxes and a large wind turbine that could have come to the area except for concerns over approaching airplanes being put in jeopardy.

Schulte stated that even with the FAA paying 90 percent, the burden on local taxpayers was too severe, adding figures on how many county residents live below the federal poverty line.

"Who in the devil are we going to tax? I have nothing against the airport, I just don't want to pay for it," he said.

M & H planner Evan Barrett told attendees that reconstructing the runway, re-instating straight-in instrument approach and acquiring sufficient real estate to satisfy the FAA and MnDOT land control requirements for airports were the improvements. He presented four options.

The first would be to take no action and let the FAA shut down the HCA when the pavement fails. The cost would be at least $400,000, possibly much more when FAA paybacks are added up.

The second would be to reconstruct the runway where it sits, while acquiring an additional 21.8 acres. Option two would cost $2.3 million.

The third would reconstruct the runway where it is, as well as move existing airport structures, plus an off-airport barn and top or remove 25 trees. It would require purchasing up to 46.2 acres. The cost would be $4.5 million.

The last alternative would shift and rotate the runway slightly while maintaining its length. It would move the airport beacon, acquire 57 acres and remove or top 10 trees.

Barrett said option four ($3.1 million) was Mead & Hunt's recommendation. None of the options include the cost of land acquisition or easements.

County engineer Brian Pogodzinski said that written comments on the EA study will be accepted until Monday, April 9.

Those, along with all of the public comments from Monday's meeting, will be included with the report when it goes to the FAA for a decision.

If that entity returns a finding of "no significant impact," the document will be valid for three years. The final decision to proceed would be made by the Houston County Board of Commissioners.

For more on the proposals, check the Spring Grove Herald's March 14 edition or visit online at www.springgroveherald.com.