Island County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to instruct county staff to negotiate for the purchase of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport in Oak Harbor, a move Port of Coupeville commissioners and local pilots have long been gunning for.
The county will not own or operate the airport but will turn over ownership and all management responsibilities to the Port of Coupeville should the purchase go through.
The port asked the county to provide the funds to purchase the airport, including the cost of an environmental assessment, as well as a $1 million “set aside” grant fund the port could draw from to pay for deferred maintenance, the creation of an airport master plan and three years’ management and operations costs.
The decision followed a lengthy discussion during which county commissioners expressed concerns over what they deemed insufficient planning on the part of the port.
Without a detailed business plan in place, county Commissioner Jill Johnson said, she was worried port officials wouldn’t know what they were getting themselves into until after they owned the airport, with the potential that operating the airport would turn out to be a greater expense than the port could handle, forcing it to either shut the airport down or continually turn to taxpayers for more money.
“You want us to spend money to acquire something so that you can figure out if it makes sense to own and operate,” she said.
County Commissioner Melanie Bacon further stated that while she and her fellow commissioners want to see the airport viable, they need proof that the port can get it to that point before investing county dollars into it.
“It’s not that we are pounding on you because you’re daring to come to us wanting the money,” Bacon said. “We want you to do it in a way that we can justify to the citizens of Island County.”
Port Commissioner David Day told the county commissioners that while he understands the need for a detailed plan, there is only so much planning the port can do for a property it doesn’t own. Acquisition must be the first step, he said; after that, the port will create a master plan, a process that would take one to three years and cost as much as $250,000.
He also said the county could make an offer contingent upon the completion of the environmental assessment.
County commissioners also wanted to explore other partnerships on this project, such as with the city of Oak Harbor, which would be the primary beneficiary of any economic development caused by the airport, or the Navy.
Oak Harbor City Administrator Blaine Oborn, who said he attended the meeting “as a supporter and a partner,” said he believed there was interest among at least some Oak Harbor City Council members in the project.
Ultimately, commissioners decided to move toward a purchase, within certain parameters. These parameters were set forth within an executive session and were therefore not publicly disclosed in detail, but Johnson said they include a walk-away number and a plan to rapidly transition to Port of Coupeville ownership.
More conversations regarding a partnership with Oak Harbor and the Port of Coupeville’s business plan for the airport will also be forthcoming, Johnson said.
“Everybody’s got to be comfortable with next steps, but right now, we’ll see if we can take the first one,” she said.
The airport was put up for sale in August 2021 at a listing price of $2.1 million, about $1 million above the property’s assessed value. Once revitalized, stakeholders expect it to be an asset in economic development and public safety.