In Our Opinion: Port of Coupeville should rethink airport purchase

The Port of Coupeville needs to slow down and get community buy-in — as well as a real business plan — before proceeding any further with plans to purchase the small airport near Oak Harbor.

The airport has a long history of complicated litigation and failed commuter airplane service. It’s a story that doesn’t need to be repeated with taxpayer dollars at stake.

The Whidbey News-Times has been reporting on the port’s plans every step of the way, publishing at least 10 stories about the proposal over the last year alone. It hasn’t been until recently that both residents and elected officials have started registering serious concern about the plans. Perhaps people didn’t think it could really happen until the port commissioners voted in January to actually make an offer.

In a follow-up meeting, the commissioners voted to pay a local resident $55,000 worth of earnest money to facilitate the purchase of the airport because they believe she has the first right of refusal.

In one of the wrinkles with the plan, a local pilot who wants to buy the airport claims that the port is wrong about the first right of refusal issue, and he said will move forward with the purchase. Another lawsuit over the airport would be counterproductive, to say the least.

The commissioners have argued that the airport would be better in public ownership, especially given the sad history of private ownership, but they haven’t addressed the issue of whether a governmental entity — one dedicated to economic development — should be aggressively vying against a business interest.

The port might be losing support among other elected officials, leaving it unclear how it could purchase the airport at all.

Last year, the Island County commissioners informally agreed to help fund the purchase of the airport with economic development funds. The city of Oak Harbor informally agreed to allocate about $200,000 toward the purchase.

But at the last city council meeting, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson cautioned the Oak Harbor City Council about ponying up cash for the airport, pointing out that the port hasn’t provided a detailed business plan or conducted a feasibility study. While port officials say they don’t have the time or money for such detailed plans, Johnson pointed out that the county last year offered $100,000 for a study, but the port never picked up the money.

In addition, council members said that while the airport is located closer to Oak Harbor than to Coupeville — and outside the port district boundaries — port taxpayers in Central Whidbey would end up on the hook for future financial liabilities the airport might produce.

There is also the question of who the airport would serve. Would it just be those who can afford their own airplane or a ticket on a commuter airplane? Would it just be a playground for rich folks?

In 2010, the owner of the airport, the late Joel Eisenberg, tried to talk the port into purchasing the airport, which he named after himself. The commissioners at the time shot him down, refusing to even study the issue. Marshall Bronson, a commissioner, was quoted in a News-Times story saying that it was “foolish” for the port to take on financial obligation and that operating the airport is beyond the port’s capacity.

While there is value in having a thriving airport on North Whidbey and the port commissioners should be commended for wanting to take action, it’s far from clear that it makes sense for the port district to jump into ownership and management. A community meeting would be a great idea and give the port the chance to state its case.

Government can be frustratingly slow, but sometimes there’s a good reason for it.