OLEAN — Looking at repairing the pavement at the Cattaraugus County-Olean Airport, Olean city aldermen had a bigger question: what is the future of the facility as a whole?
The aldermen voted 6-1 in favor of applying for a new grant through the Federal Aviation Administration to help fund a four-year program to restore the runway and apron surfaces at the facility in the town of Ischua.
Bob Ring, city director of public works, sought to apply for a grant to help fund the $6 million project, expected to need a $300,000 local share — 5 percent of the total cost. The grant being sought for the 2020-21 fiscal year would require a match of around $17,000, he added.
Council President John Crawford, D-Ward 5, was the lone nay on the resolution, but other aldermen shared their concerns over the financial status of the airport.
The airport budget is around $250,000 a year, Crawford said, with an expected $150,000 deficit. The primary users of the airport include private pilots and some business traffic. Fewer than 20 aircraft are based at the airport, according to the FAA. The bulk of revenue comes from fuel sales, as well as a $17,000 subsidy from Cattaraugus County.
“What would the county say if we got to a point where we say we can’t support this anymore?” Crawford said. “I have a hard time supporting something that is unsustainable.”
Mayor Bill Aiello added that in addition to operating expenses, the city also has to pay property taxes to the town of Ischua and Hinsdale Central School District.
“The county has turned us down many, many times” for more assistance, Aiello said, adding the biggest concern is to get a full-time airport manager.
A manager could help secure more services for the facility, which would increase revenues. Currently, there are no charter service, flight instruction or aircraft maintenance services provided at the facility.
Aiello also noted Cattaraugus County is in good financial condition — “They put $25 million in their fund balance.”
“I find $17,000 offensive looking at how much we pay,” said Alderman Kelly Andreano, R-Ward 2.
Alderman Nate Smith, R-Ward 6, agreed the future of the airport needs to be reviewed.
“Everyone here is right tonight,” he said, but noted the importance of an airport to a community is more than just actual pilots.
“They’re also symbolic of prosperity,” he said. “I fear we’re about to play chicken with the county, and we better not blink first … I’m saying let’s proceed with caution.”
Complicating any talk of closure, Ring said, is that when an FAA grant is received, the owner of an airport must keep the facility operational for 20 years to avoid having to repay a portion of the grant based on the remaining time.
“That signs us up to keep that airport open another 20 years,” Crawford said. “Without partnership with Cattaraugus County … I have yet to see any strategic plan, long-term plan.
“At what point do we say we no longer have the airport up and running?”
Alderman Kevin Dougherty, R-Ward 4, noted the city has received many grants from the FAA in recent years, and he suggested moving ahead with the application to finish studying the pavement and taking the next year to consider the future of the facility.
“Three hundred thousand dollars is a lot easier to swallow over a 20-year period than the resulting $4.6 million,” he said.
The city is one of several municipalities to operate paved airports in the region. The town of Wellsville owns Tarantine Field to the west of the village, while the city of Hornell owns Hornell Municipal Airport in Steuben County. The Jamestown and Dunkirk airports are owned by Chautauqua County. Bradford Regional Airport is owned by the Bradford Regional Airport Authority.