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Cover Story
Terminal condition
Old FBO hangar at Tacoma Narrows in Gig Harbor may be declared surplus and offered for sale to private investors

Cover Story: Terminal condition - Old FBO hangar at Tacoma Narrows in Gig Harbor may be declared surplus and offered for sale to private investorsBen Olsen has been around airports almost as long as the former military hangar where he works.

“I started out working for Gross Aviation down at the old South Tacoma airport when I was 13,” recalled Olsen, who recently turned 60. “I was one of the guys who rode his bicycle to the airport every day after school and on weekends and sat on the lot and watched airplanes.”

His aviation career started when the business owner’s wife noticed him hanging around and offered him $10 to sweep out their hangar.

But now the veteran airplane mechanic who runs his business, Associated Aviation, at Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor is engulfed in turbulence over his leased hangar — which was the first building on the airport when it was moved there in the early 1960s from McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma.

The old hangar and attached building that have long housed the fixed-base operation at Tacoma Narrows Airport may be declared surplus property by Pierce County, which owns the airport in Gig Harbor. The lease for Associated Aviation, a longtime maintenance business in the hangar, has been terminated.Olsen, who has a sterling reputation among pilots for the quality of his work, has struggled to stay caught up on his rent payments in recent years, and Pierce County, which owns Tacoma Narrows Airport, is basically evicting him. Associated Aviation had until Jan. 31 to pay about $24,000 in back rent to avoid being shut down, and Olsen said last week just before the deadline that the business got caught up.

Still, that only bought him a little more time.

When he was notified of that deadline by airport manager Deb Wallace on Dec. 20, Olsen said he was “shocked” at the other news she delivered.

“She told us that regardless of whether we got caught up or not, that most likely the lease would terminate on March 31, and this is a quote, ‘because we are likely going to surplus the hangar,’” he said Jan. 20 during an interview at his business. He added that Wallace told him it would cost more to do all the needed repairs and renovation of the building than to “gut it and completely rebuild it.”

A Cessna Citation corporate jet sits in the Associated Aviation maintenance hangar at Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor. (Tim Kelly photo)That was essentially the recommendation from an assessment done by the Pierce County Department of Facilities Management, which concluded that the aging hangar and attached office building are in poor condition. That report, dated Nov. 23, cited serious concerns about the hangar’s electrical wiring, as well the lack of insulation and an HVAC system in the building, peeling and rotting sections of siding, and other problems. The report recommends “completely stripping the building to the structural steel, and rebuilding the hangar building utilizing only the existing concrete slab and structural frame.”

The County Council would have to approve declaring the hangar surplus property, but Wallace said that issue is unrelated to terminating Associated Aviation’s lease at the end of March.

“We are in the process of taking a proposal to council for surplusing that building, and then we would put it up for redevelopment,” she said. “The reason Associated received that (termination) letter has nothing to do with that; it has everything to do with the history they have of paying their rent.”

Wallace noted that the business was put on a month-to-month lease almost a year ago. Prior to that, Associated had operated on a five-year lease.

“They have had, through the duration of this contract, issues with their payment,” she said.

As for the assessment done on the hangar, Wallace said she is “concerned that we are in a building that’s in that poor a condition.”

No one disputes that the old building needs work. However, Olsen said the condition of the hangar is basically the same as when Pierce County bought the airport five years ago from the city of Gig Harbor. He said his business has done a lot of routine maintenance and upkeep on the building.

He also said no one’s to blame for the financial struggles of his business as general aviation business declined the last few years, but the termination of the lease “has gotten a lot of our customers really upset.”

Wallace said she’s had calls from concerned pilots who keep their small planes at the airport and have them serviced at Associated Aviation. There’s been “a lot of misinformation” circulated about the lease termination and what’s going to happen with the hangar, she said.

“I would like to keep (Associated) on the airport, but the issue of surplus is separate from the eviction notice,” she reiterated. “This is just a tough one, because they’ve been here for years at the airport.”

Some in the local aviation community have connected the dots between Associated Aviation’s ouster, the surplus plan for the building, and a new player on the scene — George Swift, who just finished building a big new private hangar at Tacoma Narrows and is a potential buyer of the Associated hangar if it’s declared surplus property.

Swift owns Western Steel, a construction company based in the Tacoma area that builds hotels and other commercial projects. He recently formed another company called Narrows Aviation and bought the fuel concession from the FBO (fixed-base operator) at Tacoma Narrows Airport in October. A large banner with the business name is hung on the front of the Executive Terminal, the front office building attached to the hangar housing Olsen’s aircraft maintenance operation.

Next door sits the large new hangar Swift’s company built.

Olsen and others wonder whether Swift’s arrival as a major new airport tenant spurred the process to get the FBO building/hangar declared surplus so that an investor might do what the county can’t afford — spend up to $2 million for a replacement facility, possibly before Tacoma hosts the prestigious U.S. Open golf tournament in 2015.

“None of this started, or we had even heard about it, until this new hangar over here was being built,” Olsen noted.

That’s not the case, Wallace said, even though she confirmed that Swift is interested in the Associated hangar.

“George Swift also bought Narrows Aviation and he is talking with us about the surplusing of the building. He will undoubtedly be one of the people who bids on that,” she said.

However, Wallace said the airport was “looking at our options before George came on the scene. We’ve actually been looking at doing something with this building for some time.”

She said the long-term goal is to have an upgraded facility that will generate more revenue for the airport, which doesn’t have funds in its capital facilities budget to renovate the “dilapidated” building. So it makes sense to surplus it and sell it to an investor.

“That’s prime property in the center of the airport,” Wallace said. “It’s a prime location that is underutilized.”

The county would still have a ground lease for the site, she noted, and would require that the building be redeveloped for aviation purposes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it would still house an aircraft maintenance business. Moreover, Associated Aviation’s closure would mean the loss of a certain type of service that’s become hard to find in the Puget Sound area.

“One key thing here, to me, is that we’re the only company or shop in the Northwest … that does turbine engine work on private or corporate-owned airplanes,” Olsen said. “The closest place I know of is Portland.”

Frank Scoggins is a private pilot, a retired Air Force general, and a loyal Associated Aviation customer for three planes he keeps at the airport. He shares Wallace’s view that the FBO site is the centerpiece of the airport, but he questions the basis for a surplus declaration.

“That is prime real estate, and it ought to be used for the good of the entire airport community,” Scoggins said. “Anything that would cause that property to be surplus should be based on the fact that the county doesn’t require use of the building anymore.

“In my opinion, surplusing a building should have nothing to do with the fact that an individual offered to buy it, but only if that facility was excess to their needs.”

Swift, reached by phone at his Western Steel office in Milton, said his new hangar is almost ready for occupancy, and he has a corporate tenant lined up to store aircraft there.

He was vague when asked about his interest in the Associated hangar. “I don’t know that much about what they’re doing with the surplus thing,” Swift said.

“We’d look at it, depending on what the requirements would be with it” for redeveloping the facility.

He said the hangar “has a lot of issues.”

“Whoever takes that project on,” Swift said, “if they want to remodel and redevelop it, it’s going to take a lot of money.”

Wallace, who took over as manager in 2011, said the airport is growing, helped by the runway rehabilitation project completed last year.

“Tacoma Narrows has been an underutilized airport that had a huge list of deferred maintenance,” she said. The focus now is on “turning it into the economic generator it can be.”

She said that two years ago only about half of the 80 hangars owned by the county were occupied, but that has increased to 75 percent.

Olsen views it differently, and feels like his struggling small business is getting squeezed out.

“And again, I’m not blaming the county for our business problems, I’m not blaming the county for much of anything, really,” he said. “It’s just sad to see it go downhill.”

He’s not sure what will happen after March. He’s explored other options to stay on the airport, but said there’s not another space that’s big enough and affordable for his operation.

He said he enjoys his work and doesn’t want to retire for another 10 years. He wants to keep his business going for one simple reason.

“Because I love it,” he said. “And it’s the way I make my living; it’s the way I’ve made my living since I graduated from high school.”

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