The Silver Bay City Council met Wednesday with representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and Minnesota Department of Transportation Department of Aeronautics regarding options for the now-shuttered Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport.
MnDOT ordered the airport closed May 31 after a routine inspection found the deteriorated runway had become a safety concern. The airport has just five airplanes hangared there; two are rented by Silver Bay residents.
FAA Dakota-Minnesota Airports District Manager Andy Peek and MnDOT Office of Aeronautics Director Cassandra Isackson presented several options for the council to consider: closing the airport permanently; reconstructing the runway pavement; possibly converting it to a grass or gravel runway; or even turning it over to the county or other entity to manage.
Isackson told the board that closing the airport is an option. MnDOT has an established process for closing an airport, but such a move could prove costly for the city.
Over the years, Silver Bay has accepted grants totaling more than $2 million from the FAA and MnDOT. The grants include "grant assurances" from Silver Bay that stipulate the city keeps the airport in good repair for a specific time frame after the grant is awarded.
If the airport is closed, Peek estimates Silver Bay could owe approximately $170,000 based on assurances that haven't expired yet. Isackson estimated the bill for MnDOT to be around $10,000.
The federally obligated land is dedicated to aviation purposes, so Silver Bay would have to repay the fair-market value of the land if it closes the airport. Estimating the fair-market value of the land makes the total owed by the city for closing the airport difficult to ascertain.
Isackson said some counties own and manage airports, but it would take a mutual agreement between Silver Bay and Lake County to shift responsibility for the airport away from the city.
Silver Bay Mayor Scott Johnson said he has approached the county about that possibility twice over the last 15-20 years, but the county wasn't interested.
Isackson said state ownership of municipal airports is allowed. The state owns just one airport: Piney Pinecreek Border Airport near Roseau.
Converting the runway to gravel or grass would require an airport master plan study and could incur significant engineering costs, but the city could acquire grant funding.
The city could also reconstruct the runway, which is estimated at $2.5 million. Congress passed a $1 billion special appropriation for the FAA. Those funds are primarily for smaller airports in need of improvements; the city could obtain a grant for 100 percent of the cost. The FAA money would come with grant assurance for the estimated life of the runway - about 20 years.
The grant assurances are part of the problem for the city council. They require the city to pay for the maintenance of a facility rarely used by Silver Bay taxpayers.
Occasionally, the city has had its "arm twisted" to take grants for the facility, according to Johnson, who likened the grant assurances to a "cocaine addiction."