9/4/2013 12:32:00 PM Airport Committee split over copter hangar
Gene Prigge Chronotype staff
A deep divide in the Airport Committee surfaced Tuesday, Sept. 3. At issue was the construction of a new building for Life Link III, a medical transport company that bases a helicopter at the Rice Lake airport in a building it leases from the city. After an extended discussion, the committee voted 4-2 to recommend to the City Council that the city extend Life Link's lease contract for 2 years while the committee discusses buildings with the company. An earlier motion to borrow $125,000 and start the process of constructing a new building failed on a 4-2 vote. Particularly at odds were airport committee member Mark O'Brien and Airport Chairman Stu Durkee. O'Brien is also on the City Council. Both had talked with Life Link, but the two had completely different opinions concerning the company's intent. O'Brien said the company is happy with its existing building; Durkee said the company sought a new building. O'Brien said the company would not consider moving to Hayward if the city did not build a new building. Durkee said that was a real possibility, especially because the company has a history of moving from other communities. O'Brien said there were existing empty hangars at the airport; Durkee said there were no empty hangars at the airport, and that the hangar O'Brien thought was empty was under a 2-year lease. Durkee said there were problems with sand being blown around by the helicopter rotors, which caused problems for the neighboring Rice Lake Weighing hangar. "That is an issue. The facility is in the wrong place," said Durkee. O'Brien said he talked with Rice Lake Weighing, and "it's not an issue."
Need questioned The company currently leases a hangar from the City of Rice Lake. That lease expires in October. A medical crew lives at the hangar while on duty. Life Link planned to establish a maintenance facility here in addition to its based helicopter. Funding for the proposed $450,000 hangar involved about $275,000 from the Federal Aeronautics Administration and $174,000 from the City of Rice Lake. The $275,000 from the FFA would have been the airport annual entitlement for 2012 and 2013. Earlier last month, Life Link Rice Lake operations manager Joel Timblin discussed the city building a new hangar at an airport committee meeting. Following that, city officials contacted Life Link in a conference call. Involved in that call were Mayor Steve Harrington, city administrator Curt Snyder, city planner Harry Skulan and O'Brien. At the last City Council meeting, O'Brien announced that Life Link planned to stay in its present hangar. At Tuesday's meeting, Durkee said he and airport manager Jerry Stites had been working on the hangar idea with Life Link for 2 years, and that Life Link executives were surprised by the call from city officials. "We'd been dealing with them for 2 years and all of a sudden they get blindsided. It's a heck of a way to conduct negotiations," said Durkee. "I'm not sure you understood your customers when you dealt with them," said Durkee. Durkee said the 2 years of work on the project included looking at options to redesign the existing city-owned hangar, but nothing was satisfactory. He said remaining at the existing hangar also would not solve the problem of sand being raised by the helicopter rotors. A new hangar would be at the southeastern end of the airport, away from the other hangars. O'Brien contended there was no need for a new hangar. "That hangar can be added onto for a lot less," he said. Durkee responded that expanding the existing hangar or remodeling the living quarters could not be done under a grant, but building a new hangar could be under a grant. Durkee said Life Link supplies its helicopters medical equipment from Rice Lake, which is becoming a medical center, and the Life Link helicopter here adds to the city's medical synergy. "We liked the idea of being their central headquarters," he said. "Why would we get into private industry instead of having private industry set that up for them?" asked Polly Wolner, a councilmember who was in the audience. Durkee responded that the premise is to get the airport off the tax rolls, and that's done with income, which would be generated by the lease. "The government doesn't need to step on the toes of small businessmen, or even large businessmen," said O'Brien. "I don't see a need to commit $200,000 to a hangar we don't need and Life Link says they don't need," said O'Brien. "You're not going to get any major businesses out there until you fix the water and sewer issue," said Airport Committee member Dave Armstrong. The airport has its own well and septic system rather than municipal utilities. Councilmember Bruce Willers, who was a member of the audience, said having the helicopter here best served the citizens of Rice Lake in a medical emergency. "I would rather see it 7 minutes away than 17 minutes away in Hayward," he said. Also at issue was an email to Stites from Bob Sannerud, chief financial officer at Life Link III. Sannerud stated that they are "very interested" in staying at the Rice Lake Airport, and that "the current quarters are adequate." But he also wrote that "From the perspective of our location at the airport, we would have the most interest in the option at the south/east end of the ramp." "We're looking at the same letter and reading it totally differently," said Durkee. Airport manager Jerry Stites said building 20 private airplane hangars was questioned when the airport was first built, but now those hangars are paid off and generate $44,000 per year in income for the city. "You've got to have some trust and faith in the airport and that seems to be lacking," said Durkee. The company plans to buy six new helicopters, with $18 million in funding coming through revenue bonds. The county approved sponsoring those bonds last month. The county has no financial obligation under the borrowing. The county was involved to make the bonds' tax status more attractive. Life Link III serves a consortium of nine hospitals, including St. Mary's in Duluth, Sacred Heart in Eau Claire and Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. It has helicopter bases in Rice Lake, and in the Minnesota communities of Wilmar, Alexandria, Anoka, and Hibbing. - - - -