March 5, 2015

Debate continues over a proposed new airport in Mahaska County

Two airports in south-central Iowa would close under a plan to build a new regional airport in Mahaska County. Some residents oppose the move which would shut down the current Pella and Oskaloosa airports. Rob Hammann is spokesman for a group, which includes about 70 farmers, fighting the regional airport. He says the members feel their voices are not being heard by officials.

Hammann says: “They continue to say, ‘Well, how we can sell our communities to businesses when we don’t have an airport that can support them?’ But that’s not true. Both cities have airports and they’ve had them for 40 to 50 years. So, how can suddenly a new airport be more attractive to a business than your existing airport?”

Supporters of the regional airport say the consolidated facility would provide services to large companies in the area, though dozens of signs line Highway 163, protesting the plan. Pella, Oskaloosa and Mahaska County formed an independent entity, which will be able to use eminent domain for land. Jim Hansen, chairman of the South Central Regional Airport Agency, says landowners will be treated and paid fairly.

Hansen is a lawyer at Musco Lighting, which will be a primary user of the regional airport, along with officials from Pella Widows and Vermeer. Hansen says the airport will be important for the area’s economy. Hansen says, “If the infrastructure is not provided for the companies that are here, these are global companies, they’re national companies and they’re going to have to be where they can operate most effectively.”

Hansen says most of the money for the airport will come from the Federal Aviation Administration and the rest will be paid for by the cities. He says most of the people opposing the new airport won’t pay the cost of the airport’s operation. Opponents say spending 24 to 30-million dollars is not a good investment just so executives can cut 20 minutes off their drive from another regional airport in Ottumwa or Newton.

Jerry Searle, a consultant on the project, says an airport like this would be an asset. “If that business were to leave, not only do you lose the jobs, but you also lose the tax base,” Searle says. “Then, indirectly it increases more of a burden on the folks that remain.”

Searle says an airport is no different than any other mode of transportation that moves freight, like rail or a highway. Groundbreaking on a new airport is still more than a year away.