The Leesburg Airport Commission has agreed to study options for the county government to help pay for improvements to Leesburg Executive Airport, but won’t rush into any arrangement.
The topic was on the commission’s agenda Thursday, a little over a week after Councilman Tom Dunn stirred controversy with claims that commission members wielded too much influence over the Town Council. The comments were made after the council voted to retract a request, originally suggested by Dunn, that the county help pay for planned improvements at the airport. The council initially agreed to do that, but withdrew the request when airport commissioners, who had not been consulted about the idea, objected.
Commissioners told the council that county funding could impact operations at the airport and that a full study of a potential town-county funding relationship for the airport should be looked at first.
On Thursday, that effort advanced.
Commissioners proposed the creation of a working group to study a potential funding relationship between the town and county for the airport. While historically the county has not regularly contributed to the airport, town and county leaders have acknowledged the airport’s regional economic benefit. Business at the airport is expected to grow in the coming years, with the addition of more hangar space and a U.S. Customs facility that will allow for international flights. Leesburg Executive Airport is the state’s second busiest general aviation airport, with more than 100,000 landings and take offs a year. It is estimated to have a local economic impact of $78 million, according to the airport’s 2015 annual report.
“We need to clearly define what is the relationship between the town and county over the airport,” Commission Chairman Dennis Boykin said in introducing the working group concept Thursday night.
It’s an idea that doesn’t have unanimous support among the commission, with some expressing concerns that county funding could give the county government some control of the airport’s operations. The town and county have sparred over the years over development proposals for land around the airport, as well as a push by the Board of Supervisors a decade ago to increase the personal property tax on aircraft based at the airport.
“I want nothing from the county,” Commission Vice Chairman Tom Toth said. “We are blessed in that we have our own little town, we have our own airport. We don’t need another political entity in here [messing] around with it.”
Town Manager Kaj Dentler, who attended Thursday’s meeting, suggested that, upon authorization from Town Council, members of a working group first engage County Administrator Tim Hemstreet and county Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer to discuss the airport’s economic benefits to Loudoun County.
“The way to be successful is not going straight to the board [of supervisors]. It’s working with Buddy Rizer to determine the economic value of the airport. The county places significant funds into economic development but they look at the return on investment,” Dentler said.
An important first step, he said, was to frame the argument for the airport in terms of quantifying its economic value for the county, as well as determining what areas county funding or in-kind services could be beneficial.
Commissioner Tom Dunlap, who volunteered to participate in the working group along with commissioners Vaughn Allex, Eliot Danner, and Gary Rogerson, suggested that a clearly defined partnership with the county could give the town access to some key commercial partners going forward. Boykin also noted the county’s access to capital.
“We need to accelerate growth of the airport and the money has got to come from somewhere,” Commissioner Jed Babbin said.
Dentler said the working group should wrap up its work by the summer to give the town time to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding for a partnership between the town and county, if that turns out to be the desired next step.
Following his comments at last week’s council meeting, Dunn was invited to attend the commission meeting.
He declined, but sent a statement to be read into the minutes of the commission meeting. In part, the statement said, “I regret that my council meeting comments were considered an attack on the members of the Airport Commission because they were not intended as such and there were no allegations of any wrongdoing.”