City News

Salem City Council commits $2 million to airport terminal improvements, staffing

The Salem City Council committed over $2 million to the Salem Municipal Airport at its Monday meeting, as it attempts to bring commercial air service to the state capital.

Councilors unanimously approved the spending for terminal improvements and initial staffing costs.

Tourism and business groups spoke in favor of the spending, while a majority of commenters were opposed, citing climate and budgetary concerns. 

With funds approved, the airport would likely be ready for commercial service by September, months after business leaders have said interested airlines want to begin operations.

Mark Becktel, public works operations manager, presented an update with required construction and hiring to ready the airport for commercial service. He indicated that the airline would accept the timeline once the city committed the spending.

“We do have an airline that has shown interest in operating commercial air service here in Salem, and they are ready to make a commitment. They are looking for the city to make its commitment tonight in moving forward with the actions necessary to ready the airport for commercial air passenger service,” Becktel said during the meeting.

In total, the council approved a $2.4 million transfer from the city’s general fund to pay for operational and capital costs, including renovation and airport staffing from March through June.

Becktel said the next step after funding approval will be to sign an agreement with the airline, which remains unnamed due to the competitive nature of the airline industry.

The interested airline is a budget airline with ticket prices around $69 and $89 that intends to make Salem its west coast hub, according to Travel Salem President Angie Onyewuchi, who spoke at the meeting. 

She said the airline would likely serve Salem’s top visitor markets, with direct flights to the Los Angeles basin and Las Vegas initially, and Phoenix and San Francisco by the end of the year.

The council approving the spending was the first of five steps outlined by Becktel during the meeting before commercial flights can begin.

$1.9 million of the cost will go toward construction and soft costs including design and consultation. Plans include Transportation Security Administration compliant upgrades to windows, walls and flooring, plus new outdoor canopies and updated bathrooms.

The remainder of the spending will go toward four months of staffing at the airport, which will require up to three new full-time firefighter positions to have someone on-duty at all times, a full-time police officer for airport security, and five airport positions in program management and maintenance. 

Preliminary design of the terminal was 30% completed as of the Jan. 9 meeting, according to the staff report, and the improvements are scheduled to be completed in mid-May. 

At that point, the airport would then need to be approved by the FAA and TSA, who will also need to hire and train staff, which extends the airport readiness timeline to late August.

“We are optimistic that if everything falls into place, we will have the ability to have the airport approved for service sometime this summer,” he said.

Becktel noted that the improvements would be the bare minimum to meet requirements, and not make for an optimal passenger experience. The airport would likely need more improvements in the future.

Last spring, the city received a $540,388 state grant to cover equipment and vehicle needs for the project. The airport also received an $850,000 federal grant to use for minimum revenue guarantees, money airlines can apply for if they fail to meet targets during the first few years of operation.

The airport has the potential for an additional $850,000 in federal grants per year if they meet requirements including a $95,000 match, once the airport gets 10,000 passengers per year. The money would be spent on capital construction, Becktel said.

Tom Hoffert, the chief executive officer of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the project and said it would help tourists visit nearby wineries.

Mike Herron of Vips Industries INC., said the airport would put more “heads in beds” at the Grand Hotel in Salem, and allow business travelers to stay in Salem longer.

At the Jan. 9 meeting, more residents submitted public comments opposed to the airport than in favor, including six people against it who spoke at the meeting.

Several members of the local climate group 350 Salem, spoke against the airport and said the funds would be better spent improving shuttle service to existing airports in Portland and Eugene. 

The group asked the city to keep its Climate Action Plan in mind, and called the airport projections overly optimistic. Each wore a sticker with a red cancel mark over “FLY SALEM.”

Members noted that public surveys have pointed toward an interest in improving homeless services, and asked that the council appoint money elsewhere. 

“These are general fund dollars that could be spent providing safe places for unsheltered people to live. People are dying on our streets because they are unsheltered, and we are proposing to spend millions of dollars so that wealthy people can fly to Salem to taste wine?” said Mark Wigg.

Before the vote, Mayor Chris Hoy said he had gotten a lot of feedback from residents and has been torn on the issue.

“I’ve been hearing our constituents on both sides of this issue. To me it’s not clear cut. There are positives, there are negatives to whichever decision we make tonight,” he said. 

Ultimately, Hoy said he thinks the airport will help Salem own its status as the state capital and will make what is a large use of landscape more accessible to the general public.

“I understand the concerns, I’m very committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and I know that this might not help that. But I know we’re doing a lot of other things that will,” he said. “I think it’s time for Salem to come of age and I think that this is one more step for getting us there.”

Correction: The article previously stated that the interested airline is based in California, which was not stated during the meeting. Rather, California is the base for most of Salem’s top visitor markets. Additionally, the preliminary design of the terminal is 30% completed, not the construction. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.