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Local View: Would Sky Harbor Airport land be better used for camping?

New information suggests that future demand for small recreational airports may be decreasing. The 2013 General Aviation Statistical Databook and the 2014 Industry Outlook indicate the United States' active pilot population continues to decline -...

Sky Harbor Airport
A Hatz Bantam biplane makes an approach to the runway at Sky Harbor Airport on Park Point on Aug. 19, 2010. (2010 file / News Tribune)
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New information suggests that future demand for small recreational airports may be decreasing. The 2013 General Aviation Statistical Databook and the 2014 Industry Outlook indicate the United States’ active pilot population continues to decline - as do the sales of single-engine aircraft.
So, if long-term market projections for the small-plane recreation industry are downward, is the Sky Harbor Airport at the end of Duluth’s Park Point the best use of that land?
Recently, supporters for the airport and conservationists seeking to preserve the old-growth forest at the end of Minnesota Point came to an apparent compromise to realign the runway to satisfy both concerns. Thus it is with mixed emotions and apology that I even raise. But there are 30-some planes parked at the airport currently. What if in 10 or 20 years there are 20? Or 10?
For a community recently voted best outdoor town in the U.S., there are few opportunities for people to camp. Envision the current fenced-off runway area reclaimed with native vegetation and a Jay Cooke State Park-style remote camping scenario. People could pitch a tent, enjoy views of Lake Superior or the bay and maybe go to Canal Park for a beer or a meal. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has suggested it may be appropriate for state park designation.
I do not advocate the elimination of all aviation in the area. Is it feasible that a newly created large airplane dock could be built to allow seaplanes to land in the bay to pick up customers? Is the airport in Superior, the new multimillion-dollar Duluth International Airport (with recent flight cancellations) and the Wild Rice Lake Seaplane Base enough to service current small aircraft? Can the few seaplanes that need to change floats back to wheels go to other regional airports once or twice a year or as needed? (Note: The closest airport that can meet this need is a 45-minute to 75-minute flight away, depending on the plane.)
Before millions are spent revamping Sky Harbor’s runway - once that is done there will be no going back - perhaps we should have a discussion. Involve our elected officials, including councilors, representatives, the mayor and others. Young people could speak their minds and voice their visions for what they want this to look like 20 or 30 years from now.
If long-term forecasts for small-plane recreation are downward, do we want the land for a dwindling number of planes? Or do we want it available to a growing population with increasing demands on public lands?

Scott Wolff of Duluth is a Park Point resident and conservationist who long has been involved in Sky Harbor Airport issues.

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