- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Although it has been a decade since the article was printed, fans of Concord Municipal Airport still wince at the thought of a New Yorker story about Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign that described the state’s oldest airport in unflattering terms.

“The terminal at the airport in Concord, New Hampshire, is small and shabby, and filled with seventies-era office furniture,” wrote Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s political writer, in the June 2007 article. “I went with Clinton to a small office; she took a seat behind a metal desk and joked about the ambience of the place. ‘We’ve got the dead bugs in the light fixture,’ she said, laughing and pointing.”

Dave Rolla, the airport’s general manager, sighed heavily when the article was mentioned last week.

“At least three people sent me copies,” he said. “I immediately threw out all the furniture, went home and brought in some couches from my house.”

Carlos Baia, Concord deputy city manager, echoes the painful memories. “It was about the worst advertisement you could have. . Not exactly what the Chamber of Commerce wants to see.”

And yet, both men admit, the story wasn’t fake news then and wouldn’t be fake news today. It was more like an inconvenient truth.

“This was built in 1937. It’s got 1937 wiring in it, it’s got the original windows,” said Rolla, gesturing around the main lobby of the terminal off Airport Road in southeast Concord - where, it must be admitted, dead bugs could be seen inside one of the fluorescent lights. “It’s old. It’s tired.”

And it’s not alone.

The “new” portion of the airport terminal was built in 1961. The adjacent building, home to Hertz rental cars and Concord Aviation Services, was built in the late 1940s, while the adjacent airplane hangar dates to the era of New Hampshire aviation pioneer Robert Fogg. Its curved roof can be seen in photos when Charles Lindbergh Jr. landed in Concord in 1927, and it hasn’t changed much since.

“To my knowledge, it’s the oldest active hanger in the state,” Rolla said. He doesn’t sound like he’s bragging.

There are several reasons why the city-owned airport isn’t more up to date, one of which might come as a surprise: Even though the 614-acre airport is bigger than Steeplegate Mall and older than the historic city library, plenty of people don’t realize it exists.

“As part of a program, we used to give bus tours of the city. For a number of years I would take people to the airport - this was business people, who were doing business in the community - and it was inevitable, I’d hear people say: ‘I didn’t know this was even here!’” Baia said.

Such invisibility reflects the lack of passenger service, which means that unless you have access to a private plane or a company plane, there’s no reason to go there. That reduces any public pressure for upgrades, which wouldn’t come cheap.

“It would take probably $1.5 million to renovate the terminal. If you’re doing that, you might as well spent $2 million and replace it,” Rolla said. “Anybody who’s got an old house in New England can relate - how much money do you sink into it?”

For airports like Concord and 12 others in New Hampshire that are eligible, plenty of funding exists for runway and safety improvements. The usual formula is 90 percent federal money, 5 percent state and 5 percent city, and will apply to upgrades to taxiway A and the apron, which are slated for this year.

But there’s always a fight to get those funds, and the civilian buildings at Concord Airport rarely are eligible.

The terminal may get a lick of paint this year, assuming the city council spends roughly $20,000 earmarked in the budget and can find some donations to help out, but that’s it for the near term.

“It’s tough to develop a business model for a terminal,” admitted Rolla.

Despite these woes, Concord Municipal Airport is actually better off than many small public airports thanks to the Army National Guard, which moved onto city-owned land at the airport in 2002.

The city anticipates making $351,177 from the airport this year, including the fee paid by the private Concord Aviation Services to manage the airport; leases of hangars and airplane parking spots known as tie-downs; and fuel sales. Two-thirds of that figure, or $224,400, is paid by the National Guard.

As a result, city taxpayers spend nothing to operate the facility. This is unusual for municipal airports, which rarely create enough direct income to cover their expenses.

“It’s no different than the highway system. You don’t expect (highways) to pay for themselves,” said Tricia Lambert, head of the Department of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics. As with highways and many other government services, the argument is that an airport is worth subsidizing because it generates indirect benefits in business, home values and recreation.

Concord’s happy financial situation may not last. The airport has operated in the red for a number of years - the fiscal year 2018 budget calls for $415,000 in spending and $351,000 in revenue - and is eating into a surplus that was built up during boom times. At the rate things are going, by 2022 the city’s general fund would have to start subsidizing the airport, Baia said.

On top of a decline in general aviation that is hurting all small airports, Concord faces stiff competition from two nearby airports: Laconia for the casual pilot, especially those coming to the Lakes Region, and Manchester for business pilots.

Laconia Municipal Airport has spiffed up its terminal in recent years, on top of an $8 million runway expansion, and Rolla says it has lured away some private pilots. To the south, the new highway exit to Manchester airport puts it so close that some corporate jets are going there even when bringing clients to Concord.

“The pilots who fly corporate jets - if they have options of where to go, and they figure they’re going to spend six hours waiting while their clients are at a meeting, would they rather be in a facility that’s comfortable, appealing, has wi-fi, or in a facility that’s falling down around them and everything is very, very tired?” Rolla asked.

Similarly, most presidential candidates fly into Manchester these days even when coming to the capital.

Another blow to Concord is NASCAR’s decision to move one of its two annual races away from New Hampshire Motor Speedway next year. Scores of planes fly into Concord and stay there during race weekends, paying for slots and buying fuel. Rolla said the two NASCAR weekends have made up as much as 20 percent of Concord Aviation Services’ annual income.

Baia says Concord is working to raise the airport’s public profile via such things as the Runway 5K, a foot race up and down the runways, during Aviation Day on Oct. 21.

It’s also looking for other sources of revenue, although limitations due to security and Federal Aviation Administration requirements makes that difficult. A driving school used to rent out the closed third runway and use it to teach extreme maneuvers, but the FAA nixed that idea because it isn’t aviation-related.

Much of the airport’s land cannot be developed because it is home to the extremely rare Karner Blue butterfly, the state’s official butterfly. Concord is planting lupins and otherwise prepping vacant city-owned land on Regional Drive, at the airport’s northern boundary, in hopes that they can swap it for some of the existing conservation land, making that land available for development.

“We do have some developable parcels, past where the National Guard is. We need to get better at marketing that,” Baia said.

But those city-owned parcels on Regional Drive are far from the terminal and the entrance, which are on Airport Road, making it hard to peddle them to companies that might pay extra for being able to quickly fly marketing staff to other parts of the country. “Frontage along Airport Road would be better for us, from a marketing standpoint,” admits Baia.

As for Rolla, the main thing he’d like to see is an expansion of the main runway, which is known as 17/35 because pilots are facing either 170 degrees or 350 degrees when they land, depending on which end is used based on the direction of the wind. It’s 6,000 feet long, much bigger than the 3,200 feet of the secondary runway known as 12/20, but Rolla would like to see it extended to 7,200 feet, to handle bigger corporate jets.

He points to Hendrick Motorsports, a huge North Carolina firm that used to fly into Concord to supports its race teams at the speedway.

In 1994, he said, it used 10 different 8-person aircraft. By 2005, as the company grew, it was flying in a trio of 40-passenger turboprops. Then in 2013, it switched to a couple of larger Canadair regional jets to cut costs. Those jets can safely land on 17/35, but the margin of error is so thin that rainy or icy weather could interfere with operations.

“They had been a customer for 20 years but they said goodbye - nothing you did wrong, but we’re going to Manchester,” Rolla said. “Replacing a big customer like Hendrick is very difficult to do.”

But he remains optimistic, he said. And in the meantime, Rolla had another job: Getting those dead bugs out of the light fixture.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2rUKmsp

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Information from: Concord Monitor, https://www.concordmonitor.com

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