Saturday, September 13, 2003

Rumors fly around Cincinnati's Blue Ash Airport

Peter Bronson

At 6 mph in an SUV, the lumps and dips in the runway at Blue Ash Airport are almost invisible. But drop from the sky on three wheels, and they feel like speed bumps at the Indy 500.

"Coming in at 120 mph, it's a liability issue,'' said Bill Christian, owner of Schmidt Aviation flying school.

So are the small potholes. "The prop spin kicks up dirt and chunks of asphalt that can nick your propeller," Christian said. The runway is pushing 30 years old, almost 10 years past its lifespan.

Dozens of airplane owners have already taken off for other airports because of poor maintenance and uncertainty, he said. Yet the owner of the airport - the city of Cincinnati - is sitting on $450,000 in FAA maintenance money. That's more than enough to resurface.

Dan Dickten, the city's airports manager, said the runway will be repaired this year, but not resurfaced. "State tests showed the runway still has plenty of life left." Maintenance is not being neglected, he said.

But here's what has Christian and others worried: To obtain FAA money, the city had to promise to keep Blue Ash airport open for 20 years. But that expires at the end of this month. If the city spends any of the FAA's $450,000, the airport is protected for another 20 years. But the city won't touch the FAA cash - and will allow its annual $150,000 grant to revert to the FAA.

City Transportation Director Eileen Enabnit said rumors are flying about developers lined up to buy, but it's not true. "We're just trying to keep our options open,'' she said. "I understand the ambiguity makes it difficult, but this is a big decision for us."

Cincinnati is desperate for money, and Blue Ash Airport sits on 230 acres of prime real estate. Dickten said it's no secret that the city wants to sell, "But there is no intention I am aware of to close the airport or not maintain it." Blue Ash City Manager Marvin Thompson is not so sure. "A lot of people are wondering, and we're among them," he said.

Blue Ash worked out a deal to buy the airport for $20 million a few years ago. But then the city demanded $36 million. "That might as well be $300 million," Thompson said. "Everyone thinks Blue Ash has unlimited money. But things are tight for us right now, too."

Thompson said Blue Ash would sell 100 acres for office development to help save and improve the airport. "It's just common sense that you shouldn't allow the runway to get that way." Christian wants to expand his business. "But we can't do anything because we don't know what city will own it. We've been held hostage here for the past 25 years. We're like West Berlin in East Germany."

If Blue Ash closes, complaints about noise at Lunken could get deafening. Most of the 35,000 annual takeoffs and landings at Blue Ash could be diverted to Lunken, which has 132,000 flights per year. "People should know that," Christian said.

Dickten said Lunken and Blue Ash "both provide a viable function, both relieve traffic from CVG."

Blue Ash Airport has great potential for recreational and business flying. But the city treats it like a stepchild.

From the clouds, it's amazing how close Blue Ash is to downtown and the big airport (CVG) just across the river in Northern Kentucky.

On clear day, you can see the future, coming in for a landing - and Cincinnati is blocking the runway, creeping along at 6 mph.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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