By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — The problems at Meriden-Markham Airport began nearly three years ago as recreational flying declined due to the recession. The airport operator, Meriden Aviation Services, failed to pay rent for three consecutive months, did not maintain the airport and was not cooperating with the city’s Aviation Commission.
The city opted not to renew its contract with the operator in 2010. Officials hoped there would be great interest from other companies, but that was not the case. Only one potential operator, Meriden Aviation Group, came forward.
Though the group had some big plans for the airport, with talk of a flight school and even the possibility of skydiving, some city councilors were reluctant to approve a contract making the group the sole operator. Some questioned the deal, thinking the city could get a better offer, but at the time they settled for Meriden Aviation Group.
A year and a half later, the city had to assume full control of the airport after Meriden Aviation Group failed to meet benchmarks, including paying for snow removal. The airport, which straddles the Meriden-Wallingford line off Evansville Avenue, had not been well maintained and a massive fuel tank had been left empty, which meant a lack of planes filling their tanks.
“Quite honestly, it’s been a bit of a struggle to get that on track for a lot of different reasons,” Mayor Michael S. Rohde admitted.
Although, as the city’s purchasing officer, she had plenty on her plate already, Wilma Petro offered to take the lead in figuring out how to turn the property around.
QED Airport and Aviation Consultants was hired on a temporary basis to take over day-to-day operations with more involvement from the city. Since then, things have slowly been turning around.
“As long as you’re the owner and lease something out sometimes you don’t see or look at what’s going on,” the airport’s assistant manager Jake Hurd said. “The city, being a big operation, they can’t give this place all of the attention and you hope the operator is maintaining it. Now that they’re here and overseeing it, they can see they need this, this and this taken care of.”
City workers have started with the most basic ways of turning the airport around, by painting, installing new lights and ceilings and even putting in a “chore chart” to delegate duties in the administration building, Petro said. The roof on the building has also been replaced, as well as the roof on the maintenance hangar.
“It was starting to look really, really shabby,” Petro said of the administration building.
Other city departments have been pitching in with the maintenance work, including cutting the grass. New lights have also been installed on the taxi-way and runway.
Much larger projects, however, are on their way, including spending $460,800 for a building that will house snow removal equipment and other maintenance items. The funding will come mostly through a Federal Aviation Administration grant, requiring the city only to pay 1.5 percent of the cost.
There has also been $150,000 included in the capital improvement budget for long-awaited hangars. Aviation Commission Chairman David Pepe said airport users are excited about the hangars.
“The general sense is that things are improving,” Pepe said.
“It’s the first time we’ve taken an interest over there in a long, long time,” Rohde added. “I’m very impressed with the operation, and how they’ve handled business. We’re looking to a better future.”
Put into the city’s budget this year was $72,000 for fuel, which will keep the tank full and allow those leaving the airport or stopping by to fill up. A new fueling pump was installed with a card reader, so pilots can use their debit or credit cards at any hour of the day.
“We had two guys fill up around 11:30 to 12 (Wednesday) night,” Hurd said, last week. “Some days you might have three to six people, some days you might have 10 to 12 fly in and fill up.”
The airport keeps a log of when people put fuel in their tanks and where they are from. Since installing the new pump, traffic has increased significantly, Hurd said and people have been coming in from all over thanks to the price, which has been one of the lowest in the state.
According to AirNav.com, fuel at Meriden-Markham was $5.73 per gallon as of Aug. 2, with few other airports below the $6 mark. The only airport offering a lower rate within 40 miles last week was Barnes Municipal Airport, in Westfield, Mass.
“We wanted to market gas aggressively in terms of price and keep it low, hoping we could make it up in volume,” Petro said “We hoped it could attract airplanes to the airport. If they land enough and see what we are doing to improve it and how nice the facility is, they might decide they want to be a tenant.”
In recent days, Hurd said he has seen pilots who are stationed at several other airports from around the state fuel up in Meriden, as well as other pilots coming in from Long Island and even Ohio.
The fueling station will have a grand opening Sept. 15 and the airport will be on display for an open house, at which time many of the basic repairs are expected to be finished, Petro said.