City of Willmar hopes preserving airport history leads to land release by FAA
WILLMAR -- The city has taken steps to preserve the history of aviation in Willmar. A new kiosk dedicated to telling the story of the former airport and the relationship of a local couple to aviation locally and in Minnesota has been placed at th...
WILLMAR - The city has taken steps to preserve the history of aviation in Willmar.
A new kiosk dedicated to telling the story of the former airport and the relationship of a local couple to aviation locally and in Minnesota has been placed at the municipal airport west of the city.
The kiosk was placed about two weeks ago at the nine-year-old airport and sits along the sidewalk between the terminal building and the F-14 “Tomcat’’ fighter jet.
Also, the city placed a bronze plaque at the beacon at the former airport, located in the industrial park. The plaque commemorates the beacon and is accessible off Airport Drive Southwest.
All costs were covered by the local option sales tax as part of airport development.
Both the kiosk and plaque were erected by the city as part of the land release process required by the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA required the city to memorialize historical aspects of the former airport before FAA will release the former airport terminal site to the city for private business development.
As part of the FAA’s land release process, the city was required to complete the historical documentation section of the land release process, said Bruce Peterson, city planning and development director.
He said there was a historic mitigation process that had to be followed.
“The historic mitigation process included historic documentation with photos and narrative and that has been done and is on file with the State Historic Preservation Office, the FAA and the Kandiyohi County Historical Society,’’ Peterson said.
A survey initially indicated that there were historical structures on the airport site. The city could deal with the structures in one of two ways: either maintain the structures in their current condition for posterity; or follow a historic mitigation process if the city ever wanted the option of removing the structures.
Development of the airport goes back decades. Work on an airfield started in 1934 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The airfield served as an emergency landing field for an airline that flew between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Watertown, South Dakota, according to the city’s website.
As aviation and the need for airport management grew, John and Mary Jane Rice came to Willmar in 1945 to develop the airport, and they operated Willmar Air Service for more than 50 years.
The condition of the old terminal deteriorated over the years. In 2011, FAA required the city to weatherize the exterior block and make roof repairs. However, indoor air quality issues in the lower level are significant because there is no mechanical air exchange.
FAA has already released other portions of the former airport to the city for industrial park development, but not the terminal site.
Peterson said the city does have title to the terminal property, but still needs land release approval before the 4.5-acre site can be sold to a private business. Peterson explained that there are “assurances’’ in airport grants that give FAA certain control over transfer of property.
“So even though they are not listed as one of the owners of the site, they do have some control in the disposition by virtue of grant assurances,’’ he said.
The site is currently being leased, and the city is negotiating with a prospective buyer. Peterson said the decision on what happens to the former terminal is at the discretion of the purchaser.
Peterson does not know when the land release will be approved. He said the city continues to work with general airport consultants Bolton & Menk on the land release and he said the historic portion is completed.
“We are assembling the final paperwork at this time and would hope to have it ready to submit to the FAA in the very near future. How long it takes them to do final review of the paperwork is anyone’s guess,’’ he said.
“Obviously we can’t convey the airport terminal property until we get the land release, although we have other properties that we can transfer title to. But because of the historical issue having not been resolved, we could not include the terminal building in the two other land releases we have received to date.’’