Marana is attempting to improve operation of the Marana Regional Airport, to take it toward full self-funding, to recruit "corporate aviation," to build new capital facilities, and to hire a new manager.
At last Tuesday's town council meeting, interim public works director Orville Saling outlined objectives for the next three to five years "to carry us through the downturn" and "increase aviation and non-aviation revenues in the short term," Saling said.
As "the front door, another gateway to Marana," the airport is crucial to growth, Saling believes. "I think there's going to be some great things happen. Our feeling is we can't get stagnant out there, we have to start making things happen out there."
"The town has recognized the value of that airport in the short run, and in a long-term vision," hopes to create a "diversified commercial destination," to include expanded air travel and employment centers, said Erik Montague, finance director for the Town of Marana.
Montague said the airport does operate as an enterprise fund, collecting money from rents, leases, fuel charges and other activities at the facility. Town officials hope to make the airport "a full-cost enterprise fund, where all costs associated with that activity are being charged to that fund," he said. Certain administrative costs at the airport – finance expenses, legal costs, human resources and accounting functions – are paid from Marana's general fund, but not charged back to the airport enterprise.
"We need to make it self-supporting," Saling said, "and not be as much of a burden on the town."
To do so, "we need to bring in corporate aviation," he continued. "That's one of the growth opportunities we need to develop for the airport." General aviation planes and small aircraft "are not going to carry the burden" of growth, he noted.
Saling urged the council to review the scope of its contract of services and cost for the airport's fixed-base operations. "We tend to be overpriced," Saling observed. "We need to have some healthy competition."
Marana should "hire an airport manager with practical operations experience and a good track record," Saling said.
Charles Mangum, director of the airport since 2003, left the position in July, and it has been filled on an interim basis by Saling, who has a pilot's certificate.
In a posting filed Oct. 9, the town advertised for an airport manager, with a salary range of $55,000 to $82,500 per year. That airport manager's position is "a downgrade" from the director's job in terms of cost to the town, Manager Gilbert Davidson told the council.
"The position is a critical position in terms of leading the effort," he said.
"We need somebody there with a great deal of operating experience," Saling said.
Vice Mayor Herb Kai said state and federal grant funds are imperative for airport improvements. "We need someone who has that ability to attract those funds," Kai said.
Saling said the town has grant-writers who can pursue grants, but those funds are "really slowing down."
Montague said there is a budgeted line item for the "single-largest contribution" from the general fund to the airport fund: cash to match capital grants for maintenance and improvement. In the current fiscal year budget, there is a $347,000 line item for transfer to the airport fund to match capital grants.
A 5 percent annual growth rate at the airport would be desirable, along with construction of a new tower and progress toward design of a terminal, one of a smaller size than originally intended to lower its cost, Saling said.
"There is a great opportunity there for economic development and economic growth," Councilwoman Patty Comerford said.
"It's very important we continue to invest in the airport," Davidson said.