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Moorhead airport's future up in air

Some Moorhead officials are confident the city airport will eventually take off - financially. Others have resigned themselves to a bumpy ride. Council member Greg Lemke said the Moorhead Municipal Airport's continued financial losses - along wit...

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Some Moorhead officials are confident the city airport will eventually take off - financially. Others have resigned themselves to a bumpy ride.

Council member Greg Lemke said the Moorhead Municipal Airport's continued financial losses - along with the city's budgetary cuts - prove it isn't economically viable for Moorhead to keep subsidizing the airport.

"Just because someone decided it was a good idea at the time, doesn't mean we should continue to throw money down the drain," Lemke said.

The airport has not been able to break even since opening in 1995. City and federal subsidies keep it going.

City Manager Michael Redlinger said it has been a slow process to self-sufficiency for the airport, which leases private hangars to several individuals.

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"The amount of subsidy required to keep it going has been decreasing," Redlinger said.

The proposed transfer from the city's 2009 budget is $54,270, a $15,367 decrease from the 2008 transfer of $69,637, said Kristie Leshovsky, the city's Community Services Planner.

The airport - three miles southeast of the city - broke ground in 1995. Three public hangars, a 4,300-foot runway and four private hangars have been built since 1997. A fixed-based operator oversees fuel sales, mechanic services and management for the city.

Moorhead recently contracted with Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Aviation - which will operate as Moorhead Aviation - for a $43,000 annual payment. The contract term is for three years, with the option to extend for up to two one-year terms.

The airport had been a goal of the city's for 40 years, explained Pete Doll, the city's community services director.

The groundbreaking was like a realized dream, he said.

"We have an airport because it's one of those things that a full-service community has," Doll said.

Mayor Mark Voxland was on the City Council when the airport was built.

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"One of the prime reasons we wanted to put the airport in is that it would be a good economic engine for the city," he said.

"It encouraged businesses to expand into our part of the world," Voxland said.

Former Moorhead Mayor and current state House Rep. Morrie Lanning said the airport board always aimed to be self-sufficient and not rely on city funds, and it's taken awhile to get to that point.

"We knew it would take time," Lanning said. "It's taken longer than anyone has hoped for."

In order to maintain Moorhead's credibility, Councilman John Rowell said, "I would try any way possible to keep the airport up and running."

In 2007, the airport's funds decreased by more than $1 million because of a cut in federal funding. It means no major capital improvement projects are planned in 2009.

Federal grants have kept the airport going. It has received more than $2 million in federal funds since opening.

"Moorhead has always come through on our part of every deal that we've asked for federal help on," Rowell said. "Like it or not, our reputation is at stake.

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"To close the airport, it makes you look like you're a bunch of flakes," Rowell said, adding that a shutdown of the airport would be a worst-case scenario.

Council member Nancy Otto said she couldn't imagine where the airport would be without federal help. But that doesn't mean she would have voted to approve the airport's existence if she had been on the council in 1995, Otto said. She said there are higher priorities for the city.

Council member Dan Hunt said he's certain the airport will be successful in the future despite its shaky financial condition.

"It's a struggle, but it's worth it," Hunt said. "It's going to expand. It's going to become a valuable asset in the community; it's just going to take some time."

Councilwoman Diane Wray Williams agreed.

"You just have to not be measuring it by is its worth it today or tomorrow, but maybe in 10 years it will be," she said. "Sometimes you have to hang in awhile to get it to work."

Some council members aren't so confident.

Otto said the airport hasn't been a revenue-generating department and questioned why the city continues to support the venture.

"It proves that it costs us money out of the budget and there's no cash flow," Otto said. "But now that we have it, it's not like it's going to go away. We'll have it and we'll support it. It's just one more piece of property that the city owns and has to maintain."

Lemke said he doesn't know if that's necessary.

"I'm not convinced that Moorhead needs an airport," he said. "I've not seen any evidence that there's a benefit to the community."

Wray Williams is hopeful that the city's airport will be self-reliant in the future.

"We're too far into it to do anything other than to make it to succeed," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kim Winnegge at (701) 241-5524

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