“That airport is more than just a ribbon of fragile asphalt.”
Robert McChesney, executive director with the Port Angeles Port Authority, made that statement when he addressed the noon speaker meeting of the Clallam Bay/Sekiu Chamber of Commerce, held in the Sekiu Community Center, Wednesday, March 11.
He was referring to the Sekiu Municipal Airport, a small landing strip that provides fixed-wing and helicopter access for emergency flights, Gary Fernandes’s flight service, and fly-ins by government officials with business in Neah Bay, as well as Clallam Bay Correctional Facility personnel.
Also present was the new editor for the Forks Forum, Chris Cook, who introduced himself to the chamber. His background, from an isolated community in Hawaii, made him feel right at home in the West End.
McChesney said that most Port Authority activities are concentrated in central Clallam County. The Port Authority is advocating for a bioenergy project in Forks. It maintains the eastern part of the Boat Haven Marina reconstruction, which should begin in June to the tune of 7 million dollars. The Authority was involved in mediation with the Elwah Tribe over the Port Angeles graving yard. Its strategic projects menu covers sixty million dollars.
McChesney stated that the Sekiu airport loses funds consistently, at a rate of about $50,000 over five years. This is manageable, but the Port Authority has not figured out a way to make improvements. The airport, originally built and maintained by Arlen Olsen, of Olsen’s Resort in Sekiu, suffers from surface drainage problems. McChesney said preliminary engineer studies said this problem could not be rectified without a new subsurface bed and drainage restructure.
Olsen has said he could donate equipment and time if the Port could supply materials.
McChesney said that the Port had always cooperated to maintain the airport. There had been a discussion about chip-sealing the surface, which remains brittle due to subsurface instability and a hydrology that undermines the subgrade and needs to be re-directed.
“You can’t just put in a ditch around the airport,” said McChesney.
He emphasized that the Port needed to find out what it was in for, including requirements by the Department of Ecology.
The Federal Aviation Association will not fund maintenance for the airport, leaving it up to Washington State. The Port Angeles Port Authority loses up to a quarter million dollars per year for improvements, but this is funded by the FAA.
Pat Ness, chamber member, suggested partnering with private developers to put in ground leases for hangars. World-class fishing boats, that usually arrive behind vehicles after being towed from Bellingham or Seattle, could be stored locally. The airport could handle up to sixty such boat hangars.
“The Port acquired the property,” said McChesney. “We’re not sure how. But we wouldn’t simply sell it. We’re not going to profiteer from the airport.”
Chamber member Martin Brand said that the strongest reasons for maintaining the airport were homeland security and emergencies. Chamber member Pat Ness and Advisory Committee member Patti Adler both stressed that, in a major emergency, air flights, both fixed-wing and helicopter, would be the West End’s only means of maintaining vital links to the outside world.
“It’s life or death for us,” stressed Adler. “This area is in a critical situation. We just need one major disaster and we’d be in trouble.”
Ness pointed out that according to Jeff Rob, Port accountant, the airport requires $34,000 to operate, of which the Port receives $15,000 yearly in rental, and $13,000 in taxes, leaving a red balance of only $6,000.
“We can look for this money and we’d be happy to,” said Ness. “But we need real figures.”
The Chamber recently finished a grant to the Clallam County Economic Development Council to fund a program director for West End tourism, a position that would include locating and applying for more funds by a paid employee. The position is vital, since chamber members act as volunteers, and can’t take much time from their own jobs as business owners to put in full time employment finding grants. The entire chamber worked to bring in the grant well under deadline.
The Sekiu Fly-in, scheduled for the Memorial Day Weekend, brings in small planes from the west coast for an event luncheon. Ness joked that now the chamber is worried that the planes will come.
“You’re behind the eight ball,” said McChesney. “You have growing tourism and a declining airport.”
“The Port isn’t going to shut that airport down,” he said. “We’re not walking away from it.”
Ness said that the airport was not zoned as commercial, and that before any industry is approached to occupy the land, the airport be zoned for industrial use. This would preclude difficulties during future negotiations with companies.
Adler pointed out that box-store development was not a consideration or a worry, since it is not allowed by the State of Washington.
Some trees at the end of the airport block direct flight access, but chamber members agreed that could be rectified by judicious pruning or removal of select trees, after obtaining permission from private property owners.
Chris Cook, the Forks Forum’s new editor, introduced himself by describing his background in journalism in Hawaii and Idaho. He was accompanied by Jenine Howell, the Forum’s business manager, who was a great help during the paper’s difficult three months without an editor.
Cook remembers growing up on Kuwaii, in a climate that, while warmer, was even wetter than the West End, getting 460 inches of rain a year. Further in the mountains, at 5000 feet, the cooler air made the climate much more like Forks.
“I think of Clallam Bay being like the lee side of the island,” said Cook. “Forks is like the windward side. They’re like sister towns.”
Cook grew up around native Hawaiians, whose independence and interest in their own rich culture reminds him of West End tribes. As an islander, he understood the local concern for air contact.
An ardent surfer, Cook said that the area around Clallam Bay’s Slip Point reminded him of the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island.
“I want to tell my Hawaiian friends, don’t go to New Zealand – come out here!” said Cook.
Cook, who has worked with the film industry, said that the West End’s resemblance to the verdant tropics could be a lure to film projects.
“Try to protect what you have,” he said, referring to the West End’s magnificent natural resources.
Pat Ness said Cook would just have to come back to the tourism committee meetings and brainstorm.
Kathleen Haney, president of the West End Youth and Community Club, provided an excellent chicken dinner, for a $7.00 donation to cover costs.