Anchorage

Anchorage in talks to take over a second airport from the state

Anchorage may soon own and operate a second airport. The municipality and the Alaska Department of Transportation this week said that they are taking the first step in a possible agreement to transfer ownership and management of the Birchwood Airport from the state to the city.

Anchorage already oversees Merrill Field.

Troy LaRue, operations manager for the Division of Statewide Aviation, said the full transfer will likely take 18 months to complete. For now, the city and state have signed a memorandum of understanding and are drafting an agreement to enter into a co-sponsorship of the Birchwood Airport. A co-sponsorship would allow both entities to operate the airport while the transfer process continues, LaRue said.

The state operates more than 200 rural airports, and more than 82% of those are off the road system, he said. The state focuses most of its maintenance and improvement dollars on those airports, leaving Birchwood and other airports on the road system low on the priority list, he said.

“The municipality is postured better to understand the needs of the local community, and they’re postured better to communicate and to work with them directly,” LaRue said. “We certainly do our best. We like that airport. We believe it’s a good airport. We believe that the potential could possibly be ratcheted up under the Municipality of Anchorage’s supervision.”

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Birchwood is a general aviation airport and an uncontrolled airspace, with no on-site management.

It is primarily used by small aircraft, with one paved runway and a gravel runway used by tundra-tire-equipped airplanes in the summer and ski planes in the winter, said Lars Gleitsmann, president of the Birchwood Airport Association, a local nonprofit group lobbying on the airport’s behalf.

To Gleitsmann, the airport is a family-oriented, blue-collar place where local airplane hobbyists and enthusiasts gather. He wants it to remain that way.

“The airplane owners that we are, are people that restore their own airplane, that have airplanes that have less horsepower than the common family car on the highway,” he said. Many planes at the airport are passed on through family generations, he said.

Many users of the Birchwood Airport are wary of any changes to its management and what that may mean for the airport, Gleitsmann said. For the most part, its users want it to stay the same, with a few small improvements like more tie-downs, electricity at the tie-downs, park benches and more hangar space, he said.

“The airport users don’t want the commercialization. They don’t want the electric security gate, they don’t want on-site airport management. They don’t want business jets and people that come with them,” Gleitsmann said.

The idea that the airport’s runways could be made bigger for business jets — “that scares the living hell out of us,” he said.

Still, it’s not yet clear exactly what city management of the airport would bring, he said.

Anchorage Assembly member Crystal Kennedy, who represents the Birchwood area, Eagle River and Chugiak, said the city taking over the airport could allow for better supervision of maintenance, and she said it could help open up opportunities for more businesses and growth at the airport.

“It sounds like there’s some opportunities there for for economic growth, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said.

The city does not expect the transfer and management of the airport to cost taxpayers money, according to Hans Rodvik, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. Money made from the airport will cover its operations and maintenance, as well as funds from the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.

The state, with input from community members such as the Birchwood Airport Association and the Birchwood Community Council, has been drafting a new master plan for the airport, which will guide its future uses and improvements. If the transfer takes place, the city would then oversee that master plan and make any amendments or updates, LaRue said.

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“Airports are not only a lifeline, but they’re also an economic engine for the community that they’re within,” LaRue said. “Understanding how much activity and how much the community wants that engine to roar, and then also balancing that with what you’re able to do at the airport — it’s just an extremely important effort.”

It will take months for the Federal Aviation Administration, the state and the city to work out the details of a transfer, he said.

The Anchorage Assembly must also make changes to city code, as Merrill Field is the only airport referenced in code, Rodvik said.

The city would also eventually need to create a new department of airports, he said. Much of that process would involve the public, he said.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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