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Focus: the Baer necessities.

Baer Field, Fort Wayne's oft-criticized airport, seeks clearance to take off.

"The terminal is dull and drab. A coat of paint and some lights would go a long way," former Tokheim Corp. President Gene Overmyer said in July. Central Soya Co. Inc. President and CEO David Swanson told a local reporter in October: Fort Wayne "periodically borders on being the black hole of air transportation in North America. Parts of the terminal, especially the non-air-conditioned parts, remind me of some of the terminals I've visited in Guatemala."

Lincoln National Corp. Chairman Ian Rolland said problems at the airport were one factor in his company's 1990 decision not to develop a $60 million to $70 million building in downtown Fort Wayne. Later that year, Lincoln subsidiary K&K Insurance Group Inc. and Tokheim both cited poor conditions at the airport as reasons they considered moving out of the city. Meanwhile, Baer Field lost a major tenant, Burlington Air Express, to Toledo, Ohio, and lost its bid for the U.S. Postal Service express-mail hub, which chose Indianapolis instead.

That's the downside, but things at Baer Field seem to be looking up, with some $16 million worth of improvements made last year. Gone are the days when planes literally got stuck in the mud.

"I see things happening here," says Lester Coffman, new executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, his soft voice nearly drowned out by the noise of jackhammers and bulldozers drifting up to his office on the second floor of Baer Field Terminal.

Coffman left his post as commissioner of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to pilot the Fort Wayne authority, which is in the midst of a flurry of improvements. For example, though planes in the past became mired in the mud at times, an $8.8 million extension to the taxiway next to the main runway took care of that problem. Another taxiway was repaired for $1 million, $1.2 million was spent to rewire runway lights and put up new guidance signs, and a 1,700-foot section of the longest runway was reconstructed for about $1.9 million.

Meanwhile, a new Rescue Station--headquarters of airport police and firefighters--will be built in the next year with better visibility and communications plus the latest high-tech security measures required by the federal government. Then, plans are in the works to expand and renovate the terminal at a cost of $35 million.

The Baer Field terminal has received a fresh coat of paint this year, and its complete overhaul and expansion are scheduled to begin in 1993 and to be completed in 1995. The airport authority has proposed another $32.2 million in capital improvements in its five-year plan that runs through 1995.

Yet problems persist, airport users say. One is passenger service. Many Fort Wayne-area business and recreational passengers find it cheaper to drive several hours to Indianapolis, Chicago or Detroit than to fly direct from Baer Field. Coffman says he and the airport authority board will work with local business groups, most notably the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, to convince airlines to add flights and service to their Baer Field routes. The chamber's passenger service task force surveyed large Northeast Indiana companies to determine their airport needs and developed a documentary about Baer Field, featuring ABC Sports commentator and regional native Chris Schenkel, that aired on the local PBS station.

Seven commercial airlines serve Baer Field: American Eagle, Comair, Delta, Northwest, USAir, USAir Express and United Express. Terry Partee, vice president of governmental and community affairs at the Fort Wayne chamber, visited American Airlines in Dallas in October to try to convince the airline to send some of its expanding commuter service out of Chicago's O'Hare to Fort Wayne. A Fort Wayne chamber letter-writing campaign had helped convince the U.S. Department of Transportation to allow American to free up about 25 percent of its slots at O'Hare for commuter jets.

Partee says changes at other airlines also could benefit Fort Wayne passengers. USAir's decision to phase out its Dayton hub and reroute planes through Pittsburgh will bring better opportunities to connect to Eastern cities such as Boston, New York and Washington. And Delta is pouring money into its Cincinnati hub, which could bring more jets into and out of Fort Wayne.

The question, especially to taxpayers, has been how to pay for improvements. The Federal Aviation Administration financed 90 percent of the construction on the main taxiway last year. In October the authority received a tentative allocation of a $2.5 million federal grant to pay for the new Rescue Station. But two general obligation bond issues--one for $11 million in 1986 and another for $8.7 million in 1989--were defeated, partly because of opposition to supporting the airport with higher property taxes instead of user fees. The authority board declared this summer it will borrow as much as $30 million to expand the Baer Field terminal and pay off the 1985 bond issue.

The defeat of the 1986 and 1989 bond issues prompted a study into Baer Field's past, present and future by researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. The study, released in October 1990, found the airport was in poor financial health through the first half of the 1980s. The Board of Aviation Commissioners sent the airport into a financial tailspin in 1985, just before it turned over control to the airport authority, by issuing a $4.4 million revenue bond to attract Burlington Air Express as a tenant. The debt leaves the airport with little cash flow; most revenues from fees and concessions that could be used to cover operating expenses are used to repay the debt, which won't be retired until 1995.

What's more, the former board of commissioners negotiated long-term contracts with lessees like the airport restaurant and the hotel/motel concession at below market value or too low to recover costs.

"It's not a universal problem (among airports), but it happens," Coffman says. "The tendency in the past was to do long-term agreements. Back before the airlines were deregulated, it was not unusual to have 20- to 25-year agreements. The problem is, conditions have changed so rapidly in the interim that they're no longer effective." FAA and other regulations, as have those governing security, have increased the costs of operating airports.

Earlier this year, Congress decided to allow airports to collect a "head tax," or passenger facility charge, that can be used in lieu of property taxes to pay off debts. The airport authority has formed a management team to apply to the FAA for permission to collect the tax. Airport officials have said a $3 fee per passenger could generate about $1 million in net revenue yearly, enough to allow the airport to sell and pay back $10 million in bonds over a 20-year period. Coffman says it probably will be at least 1993 before the government grants airports permission to collect the tax.

One factor Coffman says helped lure him from Cleveland to Fort Wayne is the airport board's composition. "It seems to be made up of business people who are determined the airport should be run as a business," he says. "That's more akin to my philosophy. You have to be able to plan projects and expansions within the available revenue sources. There has to be some order to planning, on a realistic basis."

Coffman says he plans to work with community and business groups and government officials to improve the exchange of information and the airports' public-relations image.

He says renovating the Baer Field terminal is high on the agenda. "The airport is the front door of a community. It's a very important economic development tool, to the point that many companies won't even consider moving to an area unless it has good air transportation," he says. "My philosophy has always been to leave the place a little better when I left than it was when I got there. Fort Wayne has a desire to improve (air transportation). All indications are there is a lot of interest and support for the airport."
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Title Annotation:Regional Report: Northeast; Baer Field, Fort Wayne, Indiana airport
Author:Falzone, Kris
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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