Gary Nelson and Maria Polletta AZ Central
Mesa's Falcon Field faces growing pressure; future uncertain
May 6, 2014
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  • Falcon Field is as much a part of Mesa’s DNA as the old city cemetery that cradles 24 Allied airmen who died at the field in training for World War II.

    But as the airport approaches its 75th anniversary, heavy crosswinds threaten its status as one of the busiest general-aviation fields in the country.

    For months, the airport has been the target of noise complaints from neighbors particularly irate over the operations of a recently expanded flight school.

    With that as a backdrop, the City Council is skittish about growing pressure to make vacant commercial land near the airport eligible for construction of more homes.

    And amid concerns about whether airport users are paying their fair share to Mesa residents who own it, a ballot initiative is on the table to increase user fees. Some City Council members have said publicly that if the initiative passes, the airport could die.

    Mayor Alex Finter emphatically does not want that to happen.
    In the run-up to his April swearing-in, Finter was digging into Falcon Field issues that some observers believe sat on the back burner in recent years as Mesa concentrated on the Gateway area, Fiesta District and downtown.

    Finter’s first initiative as mayor was to roll out a special commissionhe is asking to swiftly develop a strategic plan for the Falcon Field area.

    The stakes are huge.

    Finter said the 5.5-square-mile area that includes the airport and neighboring employers generates $2.3 billion a year in economic impact and 12,000 jobs — many of which are high-paying executive and technical positions.

    “This commission of top thinkers and wonderful individuals is going to take a very rapid and precise action to look at all the things that can and will occur out there,” Finter said during an April 24 council study session.

    “We’ve asked them to kind of take a two-part look,” Finter said. “Look at all the opportunities and strengths and untapped growth that’s in that area, and then come up with this plan and then bring it back to council.”

    There’s no deadline for their report, and Finter said he has no preconceived ideas about its contents. But he told The Republic, “We’ve asked them to do it in a rapid manner because we have all these bubbling issues out there.”

    The panel will begin work just as Mesa’s next General Plan hits the home stretch for council approval. So, it’s unlikely its report can actually become part of that plan for growth, which is to go before voters in November.
    But if the committee sees the need for major changes in how Mesa is approaching the Falcon Field area, and the City Council agrees, the General Plan can be amended to reflect new thinking.

    Airport under fire
    Finter’s committee includes representatives from MD Helicopters and Boeing Co. — the former on the airport itself, the latter immediately north — as well as economic-development experts with aviation backgrounds.

    He hopes their combined expertise will allow for quick action on the land-planning side and on aviation issues, given the persistent neighborhood complaints Falcon Field has faced.

    For months, area residents have swarmed tense community meetings to lament the uptick in flights and related noise that commenced after CAE Oxford Aviation Academy decided to consolidate its operations at Falcon Field last summer. Neighbors repeatedly said noise from training exercises plagued them from sunrise to sunset.

    As of February, emotions were running so high that Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic-control employees declined to attend future meetings in light of reported threats against them, and at least one air-traffic controller had filed a restraining order against a resident.

    Later that month, CAE announced its first concrete solution: A 90-day trial that would limit touch-and-go activity to between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Touch-and-goes involve landing and taking off again without coming to a full stop, circling the airport and repeating the process.

    The practice allows budding pilots to work on several landings in a short time, but it directly contributes to the repetitive droning neighbors want CAE to minimize.

    CAE executive Bruce Van Allen said at an April 22 community meeting that the flight school had observed a 15 to 20 percent decrease in repetitive activity since the trial period began. He said CAE would provide more precise figures after the Saturday, May 17, end date.

    Though neighbors at the meeting acknowledged the decrease, many still weren’t satisfied.

    “While there has been a slight improvement in the amount of noise from Falcon Field, it’s definitely not down to an acceptable level,” neighbor Paul Silver said via e-mail. “I’ve lived near airports before — I grew up just a few miles from O’Hare — and don’t remember it ever being this bad.”

    Initiative on the table

    Two of CAE’s more vocal critics, Gerald Blomquist and Hudd Hassell, took their disapproval a step further, filing an application for an initiative with the City Clerk’s Office in late March.

    Blomquist is an investment banker, and Hassell has worked in financial services and real-estate development.

    Under auspices of what they call the Committee for the Economic Development of Falcon Field, the initiative would amend the city charter to impose fees, including landing fees, to ensure the airport is “as financially self-sustaining as possible.”

    The amendment would require Mesa to appoint an aeronautical-fee commission and ensure the fees do not favor one type of user over another.

    The group has until Thursday, July 3, to file the valid signatures of 7,846 registered Mesa voters to place the initiative on the November ballot.

    After being appointed to Finter’s commission in late April, though, Blomquist told The Republic he would hold off on actively pursuing the initiative unless the committee couldn’t come up with solutions.

    “We think that (the creation of the commission) is a positive step,” he said.

    City Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh was among several council members who feared the potential impact of the initiative, which he said has “the capacity to really significantly stifle economic development.”

    “I think it could cause companies like MD Helicopters and Boeing to reassess their long-term plans to stay there,” he said. “That’s why many people in the city and in economic development saw that initiative as a threat.”

    And although the city doesn’t get to call all the shots at Falcon — the FAA controls the airspace — Kavanaugh said he believed the initiative would erode the City Council’s authority to govern the airport.

    “Nobody on City Council would support that,” he said.

    Users paying enough?

    According to the city budget, Falcon’s operating costs of $1.7 million for 2013-14 are covered by revenue from Mesa’s enterprise fund, making the airport self-sufficient.

    Still, Finter said the question of whether Falcon is properly charging its users is valid.

    Among other questions, he wonders whether airport revenue is sufficient for future needs, especially in light of diminishing federal aid.

    “What do we do six years from now when we need to replace a runway?” Finter said. “We need to plan for that.”

    “If you operate a business and your model is heavily dependent on services provided by your local government, I think that we can reasonably ask the question,” he said. “How much does any one business or any one sector get before we need to look to them to say, ‘Hey, you need to rethink how you provide those services?’ ”

    That could happen in the case of CAE’s controversial flight school.

    Typical airport users, Finter said, shouldn’t have to pay extra landing fees for normal, private flight operations. “You can have X amount of services or X amount of activity,” he said, “but if you start to exceed that … you’re probably going to be asked to foot some of the bill of these very expensive services — public safety, the crash trucks, everything.”

    That idea must be balanced with the need to keep major employers such as Boeing and MD Helicopters from fleeing the airport, he said.

    Otto Shill — a Mesa lawyer, Falcon Field pilot and another member of Finter’s commission — expects most of the committee’s conversations to revolve around economic development on and around Falcon Field.

    The airport, he said, is “an economic engine for Mesa. … We need to make sure resources like that are carefully preserved.”

    Councilman David Luna, whose district includes the Falcon area, said he is happy with the makeup of Finter’s panel and is optimistic it will recommend workable solutions.

    “We want to make sure the airport survives,” Luna said.

    Falcon Field commission

    Mayor Alex Finter appointed these members to a special commission to recommend a master plan for the Falcon Field area.

    The members:

    • Rich Adams, chairman: Adams is president and CEO of Southwest Business Card Services and has more than 35 years of banking experience. He chairs the Mesa Economic Development Advisory Board and previously chaired the Planning and Zoning Board.

    • Gerald Blomquist:An investment banker with Main Spring Capital Group with extensive economic-development experience. Blomquist has filed paperwork for a ballot initiative that would require Falcon Field to impose landing fees.

    • Mike Haenel:Haenel has more than 30 years’ experience in real estate, specializing in office and industrial buildings. He is a past member of the Urban Land Institute.

    • Tony Ham:Ham recently retired as site leader and director of operations for Boeing Co. in Mesa.

    • Craig Kitchen:Kitchen is chief commercial officer for MD Helicopters Inc. and has held other executive positions in aerospace.

    • Otto Shill:A lawyer with Jackson White PC in Mesa, Shill is active in Mesa civic life. He has served with aviation groups including the Airport Support Network for Falcon Field and the East Valley Aviation and Aerospace Alliance.

    • Rosa Roy: An executive with Creative Human Resources Concepts LLC, based at Falcon Field, Roy has experience in aerospace and defense industries.

    All terms are for a year.

    Scot Rigby, who has overseen numerous key economic-development projects for Mesa, including planning in the Gateway area and the Chicago Cubs stadium, has been appointed city staff liaison to the commission.

    Rigby said he and Adams are working to set up a task force meeting schedule.