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Portage panel mulls future of municipal airport

November 18, 2018

Portage Airport Commission Chairwoman Rita Maass urged commissioners on Wednesday to keep an open mind about the airport’s future.

But as a study gets underway, commission members already have an assortment of inklings as to what should happen to the 77-year-old facility on Silver Lake Drive.

“I’m thinking we ought to think in terms of getting a new airport from the get-go,” said Commissioner Barry Erath, who said he thinks the present location is too small, and too landlocked, to ever have room for the 5,000-foot runways that modern jet aviators need.

Erath said his 14 years of experience on the Airport Commission suggest that the presence of buildings, trees, overhead utility lines and other obstacles preclude the possibility of meaningful expansion of the airport at its present site.

But Commissioner Bill Kutzke noted that city officials have searched for years, in vain, for available land that is environmentally suitable for a new airport location.

And even if such a site were to be found, Kutzke said, it’s likely that the city, and not federal or state entities, would pay for most of the costs of new facilities such as hangars.

The current airport is not perfect, Kutzke said, but it may be the best the city can afford or justify.

“Whatever we talk about for a new airport, we’re talking big dollars,” Kutzke said. “That’s why I’ve been saying we have to find a way to make the existing airport site work.”

At Wednesday’s monthly Airport Commission meeting — held a few hours after an open house on the upcoming study to determine options for the airport’s future — Maass cautioned commissioners, “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to wait for the study.”

Aaron Jahncke, the city’s public works director, said a master plan needs to be in place before federal money is made available to fund as much as 95 percent of the costs for a new airport or improvements to the existing airport.

And arriving at such a plan, based on objective data, is the reason for the study being conducted now by the engineering firm TKDA from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Project Manager Marcus Watson of TKDA told the commission that one of the first things the study is intended to determine is how much demand there might be for aeronautic services in Portage, and what kinds of services private and business aviators might need.

Already, he said, 40 members of the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce have returned surveys related to the airport.

“Not all of them use aviation, but they are engaged,” Watson said.

Watson said there are some Portage businesses whose executives land their planes at other nearby airports, such as the Baraboo-Wisconsin Dells Airport in Sauk County.

Airport Manager John Poppy said he thinks any number of existing or prospective businesses would welcome the opportunity to fly corporate jets into the Portage Municipal Airport, if the facility could meet their needs.

“Who knows how many industries could come here?” he asked. “We don’t know what we’re missing.”

Whether the airport is relocated or left in its present location, Poppy said, he’d like to see restrictions on construction around the airport, to protect the safety of the air space.

He also suggested a “moratorium” on construction in the current airport’s vicinity — something that Jahncke said is not feasible, given Portage’s lack of ordinances restricting airport area building.

Poppy referred to a recent decision by the city’s Plan Commission to approve rezoning for the Silver Lake Hill Addition, an 11.58-acre site at Silver Lake Drive and Lake Road, directly across the street from the airport. The proposed use of the property includes single- and multi-family “executive” residences and professional offices.

However, Jahncke noted, no site plan for any development of the Silver Lake Hill Addition has been proposed, and Plan Commission approval would be required before anything can be built.

Poppy replied, “I’m just saying we shouldn’t even think about building anything on this site until the study is over.”

Jahncke also said the impending study can’t be conducted with preconceived assumptions about whether the airport will be relocated or stay in place.

“We can’t just jump to a new airport site,” he said. “If we don’t do an objective study, we’ll never get funded.”

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