FORT COLLINS — Northern Colorado Regional Airport on Tuesday got the final $1 million dose of money it needed to begin construction on a new, scaled-down terminal, but the Fort Collins City Council’s 5-2 second-reading approval came after plenty of scolding.
“I’m holding my nose” to support the outlay, said council member Shirley Peel. “I won’t support any money after this.” Mayor Jeni Arndt, who also sits on the airport commission, said she too “would balk at anything else.”
The council had voted to approve the contribution on first reading Feb. 21, with council member Kelly Ohlson the lone “no” vote, noting that he disagreed with the airport’s co-ownership arrangement as well as how the facility codenamed FNL is governed. But in the two weeks since that meeting, support for the airport’s management took a one-two punch.
In a special meeting called with three days’ notice last Thursday, the airport commission, citing safety risks, voted to demolish four of its hangars, displacing aircraft owned by dozens of tenants at a time when storage space for the small planes is scarce along the northern Front Range. Meanwhile, council members learned that the Federal Aviation Administration had decided to end the experimental remote control tower system it had implemented in 2015 at Leesburg Executive Airport in Virginia — the same system also being tried at the Fort Collins-Loveland airport.
“I feel a lot less like an outlier now” because of the new developments, Ohlson said, and member Emily Francis agreed, changing her vote from yes two weeks ago to no on Tuesday after telling airport director Jason Licon that she had “too many concerns with the airport and the feasibility of it becoming the hub you want.”
Although scaled back from its original $31 million plan to an estimate of $25 million, the new 19,000-square-foot terminal still is being designed to include two airline gates — in hopes that the airport co-owned by the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland can once again lure scheduled commercial airline service, which it lost in 2019 when Allegiant Travel Co. (Nasdaq: ALGT) canceled its routes from the airport to Mesa, Arizona, and Las Vegas, and last June, when Avelo Airlines suspended flights to Las Vegas and Burbank, California, after just eight months. Airport officials are eager to get the construction under way, hoping for completion by late 2024.
Fort Collins’ contribution matches an equal amount approved unanimously in January by Loveland’s city council, plus $2 million from the airport’s reserves, all designed to secure an anticipated $21 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to build the terminal.
Licon told council members that the airport’s 10-year financial plan includes operations and maintenance at the terminal. He said it’s currently earning a per-passenger payment from Landline, a Fort Collins company that shuttles passengers between FNL and Denver International Airport, and that money can be used as a revenue stream until scheduled airline service is restored.
Fielding a question about the future of the airport’s remote air traffic control pilot program, Licon pointed out that the Virginia project “was driven by the private sector,” whereas the one at FNL was driven by the Federal Aviation Administration with no local investment.
“We are looking at contingency plans. We went in knowing that it might not be certified,” Licon said. “There have been some changes, a lot of it stemming from the FAA changing some of its rules recently.”
Responding to Arndt’s concern that Fort Collins might be asked to help cover the cost to demolish the old hangars, Licon said the airport is looking for options and has fielded some interest from groups that are willing to tear them down and recycle the debris.
During the public comment period before the vote, economic-development consultant Joe Rowan said he supported the $1 million outlay to fill the funding gap for the new terminal, expressing “a great deal of respect for what Jason and the airport board has done” in crafting “a dynamic and well-functioning transportation system that can always be better.”
However, Steve McClintock, a founding member of the FNL Pilots Association, called the terminal “a bridge to nowhere.” He said he suspected that Licon’s ambition is to replace general aviation with multi-million-dollar hangars for jets at the Northern Colorado airport, but added that “it’ll never be the mini-DIA Jason wants.”
In 2021, Fort Collins/Loveland jetCenter Inc. approached airport management with a proposal to spend $25 million to $30 million to expand its jet hangar operations. Airport staff members negotiated a lease and brought it to the airport commission for approval, but the commission faced a buzzsaw of criticism from private, general-aviation operators at FNL, 60 of whom would have been displaced by the jetCenter expansion.
Currently, nearly every general-aviation airport between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Colorado Springs has waiting lists for hangar space.
Michael Fassi, a major in the Civil Air Patrol in Colorado, said Tuesday that Fort Collins’ $1 million would have been better spent on maintenance at the airport than on a new terminal. He asked the council to “take a step back and come up with a viable option” for the aircraft owners who will be displaced when the four hangars are demolished.
Fassi said the CAP might be able to find a home at Greeley’s airport for its evicted plane, but that could put the aircraft farther away from where it’s needed for search-and-rescue missions, “and as any first responder will tell you, time is important.”
The hangars, built between 1965 and 1977 by private developers, were deeded to Loveland and Fort Collins after long-term leases had expired. The airport has been leasing the hangars to private aircraft owners on a month-to-month basis since 2020. The four buildings contain 57 usable hangar units with 64,500 square feet of storage space and house the aircraft of 47 individual tenants.
A news release issued by the airport commission last week said FNL “has been able to extend the usage of these buildings to maximize their available lifespans but can no longer be supported by the cities due to multiple factors that are due to age and deterioration.”
The release said a gradual phase-out of the old hangars was originally intended to ease the impact on tenants and allow for new hangar development to take place, but “a structural analysis of the buildings identified structural concerns, limiting their time for use.”
However, Fassi told BizWest that the analysis was done last September, adding, “Now it shows up? I don’t understand the rush and why this has popped up now.”
Noting that the targeted hangars generate $214,000 a year in rent revenue, Fassi asked why that revenue hadn’t been used to take care of them over the years instead of letting them deteriorate. The airport has offered to provide outdoor tie-downs for the evicted small planes, but Fassi told BizWest that sun and hail would “beat the s*** out of them, and then the insurance company is not going to cover it. I don’t think the pilots are being unrealistic.”
Interviewed before Tuesday’s meeting, airline pilot Mark Coan, secretary-treasurer of the FNL Hangar Association, said general-aviation “doesn’t get the care and feeding it’s due. More people want to go after the commercial stuff because that’s what makes your operation get big instead of a bunch of Cessnas and weekend warriors. There’s no glamor to that part of general aviation — but with no air carrier, general aviation is paying all the bills out there” at FNL.
Coan, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who ran an air base in Kuwait and ran programs for one in Italy, said he would have prioritized getting a permanent control tower and expanding a runway at FNL before building a terminal.
“Those first two things I listed are pretty much safety issues,” Coan said. “Especially if their premise is about safety, then safety ought to be their focus on the airfield.”
Noting that Centennial Airport in Arapahoe County announced Monday that it had received $4 million from the FAA to pay for site selection, engineering and design for a new air-traffic control tower,” Coan said “not many airlines are going to want to operate in and out of FNL without a control tower.”
When the Northern Colorado Regional Airport Commission decided the old hangars were irreparable and could not be updated to meet current codes, it agreed to give owners until April 20 to present an alternate plan that would buy them more time.The airport has published information on its decision on its website at http://www.flynoco.com/airporthangars, and a public town hall will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the jetCenter, 4824 Earhart Road in Loveland.