BIDDEFORD – A majority of the Biddeford City Council wants to wait for answers from a committee regarding the municipal airport before making any decisions on whether to accept funds from either the state or federal governments or hire engineering consultants to do project work.
In a 5-4 vote last week, the council defeated a proposal championed by Mayor Alan Casavant to contract with the firm of Gale Associates to provide planning and engineering services for the airport, which is located on the western side of the city near the Industrial Park.
The motion to hire Gale Associates was defeated when councilors Roch Angers, Melissa Bednarowski, David Bourque, Brad Cote and Richard Rhames voted against the measure during the council’s May 21 meeting.
Casavant was backed by councilors Rick Laverriere, Bob Mills, Mike Ready and Mike Swanton, according to City Clerk Carmen Morris.
The airport has been a bone of contention in the city since at least 1954, when a newspaper article from that year indicated discussion was being held about shutting it down because it was largely unused. However, in 2008, residents rejected a referendum asking if they wanted to spend $3 million to close the airport.
Since he took office in 2011, Casavant, who is looking to jumpstart the city’s economic development following the recent recession, has argued that the airport could be an asset for Biddeford, and it needs to take advantage of the federal and state funds available to not only maintain the airport, but also make it safer and more user friendly.
He has been stymied, however, by a council that’s reluctant to take money that comes with a lot of strings attached, and by the argument being made by some on the council that the airport property could be put to better use.
Those who voted against the proposed contract with Gale Associates last week said it had nothing to do with the company or what it could offer the city, but with the message that would be sent by hiring an engineering firm when the council hasn’t even decided if it wants to keep the airport open.
Casavant said the contract with Gale Associates would not cost the city any upfront money, and the agreement for its services was only “project specific.”
He also argued that any and all projects that might take place at the airport would have to be approved by the council before Gale Associates began any work.
In addition, Casavant said that since citizens voted to keep the airport open in 2008, “we have an obligation to make it financially possible to keep the airport operating.”
The airport sits on 126 acres of land at 188 Landry St. It was built in the mid-1930s, and is primarily funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, which pays 95 percent of the operating costs. Another 2.5 percent comes from the Maine Department of Transportation and 2.5 percent is funded by the city. The airport’s single runway is 3,011 feet long.
Cote was a member of the review team that recommended Gale Associates from a number of other firms responding to a request for proposals put out by the city in March, but last week said hiring the company would be “premature,” especially since the council is still awaiting answers to questions it asked several months ago.
Those questions include the annual usage of the airport, what the cost to the city would be to close the airport and a list of the mandates that come attached with the use of any federal or state money, among others.
Cote said he wasn’t comfortable approving the contract with Gale Associates until he could “make an educated decision. I don’t want to make a decision in the dark.”
Rhames cautioned Casavant and others against assuming that because residents rejected closing the airport in 2008, it means that “the facility is warmly loved and residents want to keep it open. That’s not necessarily true. That was a narrowly tailored question.”
Rhames also agreed with Cote and said hiring an engineering firm to perform possible project work at the airport was “quite premature,” especially since the council is considering layoffs in the new fiscal year budget.
“I’ve been following this (debate) for decades,” he added. “(The airport) is only a piece of ground with a landing strip on it. So I hope we table this until after the council can consider alternatives for using that property.”
Both Ready and Mills argued there was no risk in signing the contract with Gale Associates.
“It’s time we move forward. I’ve been on the council for six years and nothing’s been done,” said Mills.
Rhames said he was only trying to “slow the momentum until the council has been able to more fully deliberate on the best use of that land.”
Angers said the council would still have plenty of time before the July 15 deadline for applying for state funds to make a determination about the future of the airport, assuming the in-house committee makes it report soon.
“The report from that committee will have a big impact on my decision to accept federal funds,” Angers said. “(And), I’m not even sure we should be moving forward on the airport at all.”