A bumpy relationship looks like it has hit the skids as Central Washington University announced last week it will seek state funding to relocate its flight aviation program from Bowers Field in Ellensburg to McAllister Field in Yakima.

While Central is preparing to seek state funding, university officials (see guest column by CWU President James Gaudino) are leaving the door open to remaining at Bowers Field.

The split seems to come from a difference of (legal) opinion on whether CWU can manage Bowers Field under a joint operating agreement with Kittitas County — a solution that was reached between the county and CWU last year.

Under the agreement, the university would be responsible for aeronautical operations, staffing issues such as hiring an airport manager, lease negotiations and general maintenance and upkeep of the runway. The county would be responsible for outside, industrial and business park operations. The university stated its goal was to have the agreement finalized by February 2019.

There are likely different ways to spin this, but the bottom line (at least in the short term) is this is not good news for Kittitas County or CWU.

Kittitas County will be losing its primary airport user and potential partner in airport maintenance if not improvement. Central is losing a conveniently located flight facility several blocks from campus.

The only positive spin is to think that perhaps Central was going to outgrow the airport eventually (this just moves up the departure) and maybe the county will use this as incentive to further develop the airport property for light industrial purposes.

It seems odd that the county’s attorney says that state law does not allow Central to operate the airport, while Central officials say a state attorney says it’s allowable. It creates an impression of two public entities operating at cross purposes.

County commissioner Cory Wright said some long-held assumptions about the airport are not true — particularly that federal airport funding is tied to airport use and that losing the flights associated with the Central program will lead to a decrease in federal funding for things like runway improvements.

What was once a seemingly comfortable relationship between Central and Bowers Field has been degrading for several years. This first fissure occurred when CWU ended its long-term relationship with MidState Aviation and contracted with a different flight instructor firm (which turned out to eventually be owned by the Chinese). That relationship did not last and Central then determined it would be best for the program to come in-house with the university owning its own planes and hiring instructors.

That arrangement led to discussions about the university taking more responsibility for Bowers Field, including becoming the fixed-base operator. That’s where the relationship was going last year until the county determined it could not go that direction.

It is important to keep in mind that throughout this decades-long relationship, the county has not maintained Bowers Field very well. Last year the secondary runway was closed due to disrepair. The county’s position is there has not been a sufficient revenue stream to do needed repairs beyond what the Federal Aviation Administration has funded for the main runway.

Central is seeking money from the state Legislature for investments needed at McAllister Field. If successful, the end result will be a far less busy Bowers Field. The county is advertising for an airport manager. What that person manages may change considerably in the next couple of years.

At some point in the future this may be looked back on as a necessary split. Right now it feels like two public entities that could not find a way to make a mutually beneficial relationship work out. Perhaps the die is not cast. For the sake of the community and Central, let’s hope there is a way to resolve these differences.


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