After years of advocacy from local business and tourism groups, Salem is closer than ever to resuming commercial flights at the city airport.
But questions remain about whether needed terminal renovations can be completed quickly enough to meet the expectations of airlines interested in flying out of McNary Field.
The Salem City Council on Monday unanimously voted to move forward with designing and permitting upgrades needed for the airport terminal to meet Transportation Security Administration requirements to allow flights.
The design and permits are expected to cost $129,500 for a renovation of the existing terminal, and $195,000 for a renovation and expansion. The design and permitting costs would be paid out of the city general fund.
Construction costs aren’t yet clear, and the city doesn’t have a funding source identified to pay for construction. City manager Keith Stahley told councilors Monday he expects city staff would have a cost estimate when design is about 30% completed.
“We will move forward with due haste,” Stahley said. “The hard conversation is going to be funding the actual capital improvement.”
If commercial flights resume, the airport will also face additional operating costs for fire and police service, and new airport employees. A city report in August estimated those annual operating costs at close to $900,000 per year, while the revenue increase from commercial air service would be lower. Leaders with Fly Salem have disputed those figures, saying revenue estimates are too conservative.
The city faces a tight timeline to complete the renovation, as local business groups have pushed to restore commercial air service to Salem, saying an airline is ready to launch flights in May 2023. They have not named that airline publicly, citing a confidentiality agreement.
“You have a community ready to step up and make it happen to assist the city. I urge council to lead from a position of strength this evening … and provide a directive to staff to prepare the terminal for May 1 service. There is no legitimate barrier to getting this done by May,” said Angie Onyewuchi, CEO of Travel Salem, during public comments at the meeting.
At the Monday council meeting, Kristen Retherford, the city’s urban development director, said the soonest the city could complete design and permitting is five and a half months — putting completion around mid-April. Construction would begin after that process is complete.
She said the airport’s manager, John Paskell, was at a conference discussing that timeline with other airport industry professionals.
“The feedback today with this conference is that our timeline is very aggressive,” she said.
The city didn’t begin design work earlier because councilors were under the impression no changes were needed to accommodate TSA screening, Council President Chris Hoy said at the meeting. He said while it’s unfortunate they’re now rushing to complete the work, the best council can do is urge staff to move forward as quickly as possible.
“Ideally all of this work would have been done a year or two ago,” he said. “We just need to get moving and let the chips fall where they may.”
The push to resume air service ramped up this summer after Salem landed a $850,000 federal grant to kickstart airline service by offering minimum revenue guarantees to airlines who establish routes here.
Salem also received $540,000 in a state grant to cover the cost of needed ground equipment.
Fly Salem, the group pushing for the return of air service, is now under confidentiality agreements with two budget airlines about beginning service to the city, said Brent DeHart, chair of the Fly Salem steering committee and owner of Salem Aviation Fueling.
Onyewuchi has previously told the council that an interested airline wants to offer twice weekly flights to the Los Angeles area and Las Vegas from Salem.
On Monday, she said those offerings would particularly benefit Latino Salemites, many of whom have family in California.
“The service would provide low cost options to connect them with the residents and their families, but also have inbound economic impact with their family and friends coming up here to visit us,” she said.
Two Salem residents spoke against returning commercial air service to Salem during the meeting’s public comment portion. Phil Carver, with 350 Salem, an environmental organization pushing to reduce carbon emissions, said resuming flights would increase the environmental impact of the city’s transportation sector.
“There’s no climate lens. There’s no estimate or discussion even of what this would do to Salem’s climate emissions,” he said.
Supporters of the project have said it would reduce Salem’s overall carbon emissions because of a reduction in car travel to the Portland airport for Salemites flying out. Onyewuchi on Monday said interested carriers are also using newer, more fuel efficient planes.
Carver questioned that logic, saying many of the cars and road shuttles traveling to Portland would be electric vehicles by 2035 — the city’s target date to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50%.
Councilors briefly addressed environmental and equity concerns while discussing the motion. Councilor Trevor Phillips said he saw benefits to having fewer people drive to Portland for flights, as well as the potential to unlock other federal grants and emergency preparedness funding at the airport.
“We’re one of the biggest capital communities not to have air service,” he said. “From an equity lens point of view or an environmental point of view, I’m as satisfied as I can be in an imperfect world with limited data.”
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.