Dutchess County officials have turned to a private partner to take over aviation-related services at the county airport, part of a strategy to attract more private investment in commercial and retail development there and eliminate the drag on taxpayers from a chronically deficit-ridden airport operation.
But commercial flights, which ended in 2001 at the 640-acre airport in the town of Wappinger after a decade-long decline, are not expected to soon resume in the tailwind of the county’s new five-year lease deal with FlightLevel Aviation, an independent fixed-base operator, Dutchess County Executive Marcus J. Molinaro told the Business Journal.
Molinaro said his administration has reduced the annual operating deficit at the airport from $800,000 when he took office in 2012 to less than $400,000. The 12-employee airport operates this year on an approximately $2.7 million budget. With the agreement with FlightLevel, the operating deficit will be eliminated, he said, although the county still will incur an annual debt service expense for capital improvements for about 10 years.
Headquartered at the Norwood Memorial Airport in suburban Boston since its launch in 2007, FlightLevel Aviation is also a fixed-base operator at middle-market airports in Brunswick, Maine, and Cape May, N.J. Its new Hudson Valley entity, FlightLevel Dutchess LLC, will provide line services such as fueling, hangaring, tie-down and parking, aircraft rental and aircraft maintenance, in addition to offering customers the use of pilot lounges, car service and taxi scheduling and hotel reservation assistance.
The county, which will retain eight employees at the airport, will continue to provide runway and ground maintenance, snow removal and Federal Aviation Administration oversight.
The company will rent a portion of the main terminal building and Hangar 9 and initially invest up to $100,000 in capital improvements to the two buildings. FlightLevel also will rent an approximately 153,500-square-foot aviation development area at the facility, according to the county executive’s office.
FlightLevel has guaranteed the county a minimum annual payment of $200,000. The county will receive 10 percent of gross revenue for commercial and general aviation activities other than fuel sales and 3 percent of gross revenue for all sales of aircraft based at, shown at, sourced out of or sold or transferred by FlightLevel Dutchess at the county airport. FlightLevel also will pay fees to store and sell fuel through the county’s airport oil depots and will buy county-owned fuel trucks and ground service equipment.
The Massachusetts company also agreed to establish an aircraft maintenance repair station within three years at the Dutchess airport for aircraft owned or operated by the general public.
The deal also includes additional lease-term incentives for each $500,000 investment by FlightLevel connected with the construction of a new hangar at the airport.
Though it lacks any commercial carriers and no corporate aircraft are based there, the Dutchess County Airport is the second busiest general aviation airport in the state, according to county officials, with about 75,000 aircraft landings and take-offs each year. Yet, “The Dutchess County Airport was much more active 30 years ago” with corporate and commuter flights, Molinaro said.
“Can I say we might end up with commercial flights again? I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. But the county executive said he does expect to see more businesses following FlightLevel to the airfield.
“I do think with greater traffic and more private investment, we expect the campus can be grown as well for commercial and retail development. It’s a long-term effort. What we can do as a government is limited. What FlightLevel can do with the incentives here for them is to take the airport to the next level and attract additional investment.”
In a statement announcing the public-private partnership, FlightLevel’s founder and president, Peter Eichleay, said the Poughkeepsie-area airport “has been in need of a true full-service FBO for some time and we’re committed to making the investment in equipment, quality personnel, and infrastructure to achieve that status.” He said the company will launch a major marketing campaign for its new location.
“It’s all part of a strategy” to maximize the airport’s economic potential, Molinaro said of the county’s deal with the private operator. The county is moving as well to tap the state’s Start-Up NY program to attract businesses to the airport, developing a nearly 2.5-megawatt solar energy generation site there and increasingly using the Wappinger field as a venue for concerts and other crowd-drawing events such as the Wings of Freedom Tour that brings World War II-era aircraft to Dutchess County this month.
Molinaro said the airport this year was designated a Start-Up NY zone in connection with Dutchess Community College’s expanded aviation curriculum that will include an Airframe Maintenance Parts program. New or expanding businesses that open in Start-Up NY zones and their employees are exempt from state income taxes for 10 years. The county executive said the tax-free zone will be used to incentivize existing businesses in the county to open operations on the airport campus.
“The county airport does have the potential to be a greater economic engine, but we believe we’re heading in the right direction,” Molinaro said.