James Gaudino

James Gaudino

Perhaps you read in the paper Saturday that Central Washington University is moving the aviation program to Yakima. Since then, several folks have asked me if it’s true. The answer is, “It depends.”

It depends on whether the Washington Legislature chooses to fund this move. The cost would be about $14 million just to secure office and classroom space, and hangars. At the direction of trustees, CWU has reviewed several facilities in the region, and McAllister Field in Yakima is promising.

CWU needs a safe, modern facility where young people can learn to fly. We would have that at McAllister with certainty and certainty is precisely what CWU lacks in Ellensburg.

Bowers Field is a government facility, constructed by the federal government during World War II, and then managed either by the city of Ellensburg or Kittitas County ever since. Another government agency, Central Washington State College, started a pilot program at Bowers Field in 1974.

No small airport is a money-maker and no rural county government ever enjoys the luxury of budget surpluses. So it’s not surprising that over the past four decades small problems, passed over due to a lack of money, have grown into big problems. Eighteen months ago the county closed one of two runways. There are cracks in the pavement, annual flooding, and recently a rusty hangar door trapped several CWU planes for weeks.

The deterioration is real and significant investment will be required to rescue facilities neglected for decades. Restoring this valuable public asset will require the support of the county, state and federal governments, as well as airport users, like CWU.

About a year ago CWU proposed a partnership that would let the County share Central’s personnel, budget, and expertise to stop the degradation of Bowers Field. Four public airports already have intergovernmental partnerships. So this “joint sponsorship” idea seemed like a solution to the County’s airport budget problems. And let me be clear, CWU has never and never will propose owning the airport.

Last summer, CWU and the county agreed to a process that would allow the two to explore questions just like those articulated Saturday in the paper by Commissioner Wright.

Unfortunately, the county dissolved the process after just two meetings, and well before the questions could be explored.

Now we’re back at square one — except 50 more students are enrolled in our aviation program. Now we have nearly 250 with whom we’ve signed a contract.

In retrospect the county process appears to have been set up to be adversarial, with two bargaining teams opposing each other across a table. But building a partnership shouldn’t be so fraught.

I support starting anew with fresh faces and a fresh perspective. We’ll have to move fast. But we can do hard things, so let’s try to fix this. If we want to — and that’s an important caveat — we can figure out which obstacles are real and how to solve them. CWU is ready. This is where we want our students to live and study. Ellensburg is our home.

I can envision a vibrant airport that supports emergency services, education, and even passenger service someday. I can see a bustling business park around the airport.

It seems a waste not to leverage this valuable taxpayer resource to create jobs and support the services we all need.

Where will CWU students learn to fly? It depends — on what the community wants.

James Gaudino is the president of Central Washington University.

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