The future of the Grantsburg Airport, call sign “KGTG,” remains unclear, after the Grantsburg Airport Committee met last week on Wednesday, Sept. 14 to discuss the upcoming village budgetary needs, including for the airfield, but also to discuss options down the road for the facility, which was built in the 1950s and is owned by the village.
The discussion by the committee suggested they may look into options that include selling the airport to a private firm or individual, and village clerk/treasurer Sheila Meyer has contacted an appraiser to give them a preliminary idea on what the property may be worth, noting they own approximately 240 acres of land, with the runway and the small terminal building. The village does not own the ten hangars on site but does own the property below them and leases to the owners.
“It’s not something looked at regularly (for comparable listings),” Meyer said, suggesting the property may be worth an estimated $560,000, but that it was a “Guesstimate at best.”
Village president Terry Kucera suggested there may be people who buy private airfields, but they are early in the investigation.
“We’ve talked about privatization,“ Kucera said with a shrug. “But that’s all we’ve come up with, so far.”
Several trustees noted the costs to the village, which was part of the upcoming, 2023 village budget discussions, where it was outlined that several items should be replaced or upgraded to help maintain the grass runway, including for a new tractor capable of mowing such a large swath of property. They currently have a hangar owner who does the mowing in exchange for rental, but the tractor used needs a new transmission, at least.
“It does generate some tax revenue,” trustee Hank Java noted, as Meyer went over some of the tax implications, as well as the liability to the village, which includes some income for land leasing for the Burnett Dairy Coop, as well as costs to maintain or mow, and repairs to the terminal, as well as other items.
“The last few years, it’s been (operating at) a loss,” Meyer said. “But the discussion always was, as long as it’s cash flowing, leave it alone.”
Kucera noted that while there is some income, there is a much higher cost to taxpayers, and they included a spread sheet detailing those costs and operating profit since 1990, totaling approximately $246,000, without the major rehab project that was proposed but delayed for two years in 2021.
As noted before, those long-term plans for the airport were put on hold after a decision last year to delay a rehabilitation/reconstruction proposal, due to possible long-term costs to the village, and the requirement for the village to prepare a master plan for the airport, which may cost over $30,000.
The village held an advisory referendum in the last two years about whether to keep the airport, and it came back as positive, but that was before they knew the required costs to keep the paved runway viable.
“Things have changed since then,” Kucera noted, citing the apparent initial confusion about the difference between a “rehabilitation” and a full “reconstruction” of the 3,000-foot runway.
The airport committee made no decision on the airport, but will continue to look at options, including possible privatization and a sale, which has an admittedly small possible market.
The other options included turning the whole airport into a grass runway, although then they would need to look closer at long-term mowing maintenance equipment. They also discussed what might happen if it was no longer an airport, as it is currently zoned as “conservancy,” which is limiting, as well, on possible agricultural or commercial options.
The committee discussion also noted interviews with several local business CEOs and asked if they would or do use the airport currently, with few of them saying they do, in part due the runway length and the type of planes they use.
“I assumed it was a condition (of the runways) problem, not a size (of the runway) issue,” Trustee Java said, adding that he was “embarrassed” by the current runway condition.
They also noted that of the eleven hangar owners, only two of them live in the village limits.
“Not everybody can use the airport,” Java said, adding that if the village were to continue to keep and own it, they need to make it safe and useable. “At what point does (regulators) deem it unsafe to use?”
Meyer noted that they could convert it to all grass runways, but the mowing issues grow, with that route.
“We’re still investigating options,” Kucera said. “I think we all want to be that place that offers everything to everybody, but we just can’t.”
The other side
The Sentinel interviewed hangar owner and pilot Rod Kleiss of Grantsburg this summer about the KGTG airport issues, citing the need for the runway work and other possibilities. He was adamant that there is not only money to be made by keeping it intact and improving it, but also to offer up the option of expansion, down the road.
“There is no reason this airport shouldn’t be an asset,” Kleiss said. “It could be very valuable to businesses, also.”
He is among the users and hangar owners at KGTG that are hoping the village decides to keep it active and safe, as well as promoting the possibilities of the airport, and not just for business but for tourism, as they have pushed for a campsite on the grounds, and believes the rehabilitation would eventually pay for itself. He disputed the cost to work on the runway, and believes that if it’s done right, the demand will follow.
“It could be self-sustaining and a true asset to the community!” Kleiss said, noting the loaner car they have for pilots to use while on grounds - affectionally called “The Curiosity Car” instead of a “courtesy car.”
He thinks that a small 20-25 site campground proposed on the southwest corner of the property would allow for even more income, as well as drawing tourists and day-fliers. “It could start to make Grantsburg a real destination,” he added, citing things like Crex Meadows, birding, nature seekers and of course, possible business use. “There are exquisite possibilities for the area.”
Kleiss sees the day where the high school could partner with the village to make it part of course offerings, from aviation engineering to piloting to product development, using flight simulators to make the airport part of an educational program that would dovetail perfectly with all the local engineering firms.
He said there are several of the current hangar owner/pilots who are certified instructors, so they could also become a training ground for future pilots.
“They (pilots) seemed pretty excited (about the possibilities) until the village put it on hold,” Kleiss said, noting that it’s difficult to find indoor storage for aircraft in this area, and said the village is missing out on some of their federal funding by not committing to the future. He also said that the two-year hold the village put on the rehab issue may be fatal for the runway, which is already rated at a Runway Pavement Condition Index (PCI) of 25 to 40 out of 100. KGTG has the lowest PCI in the state of Wisconsin, but Kleiss believes the subsurface of the 3,00-foot runway is in good condition but may not last much longer, as is.
“Without runway work now, the base will erode,” Kleiss said, citing the need for the work to start sooner than later, or the added red tape and delays could be fatal. “If not, it could be lost.”
Kleiss referred to the advisory referendum, which was nearly two-to-one in favor of keeping the airport as evidence that the village supports the KGTG, but he’s also convinced that the short-term costs of upgrading and eventually looking to dovetail pilot and business efforts for maintenance, upgrades and long-term usage will pay off, down the road, or down the runway.
The preliminary estimates for the rehabilitation/reconstruction was noted as $650,000, but he’s confident that the KGTG infrastructure is worthy.
He also endorses things like bringing fuel sales in, promoting a campground, and making it part of a marketing for the village and region, which would possibly lead to even adding more hangars.
“I really don’t see the downsides,” Kleiss said.
He is hoping the village considers input from pilots and hangar owners before making any long-term decisions, and is hoping that they look more to professionals for advice on the airport, which he called an underappreciated asset.
While he refused to go down the “legal road” for pilots who have hangar leases, he insisted there are stipulations the village must follow, under the terms.
“It’s not what this is about,” Kleiss assured. “This is about keeping a resource for Grantsburg, and endorsing it!”