Collector details plan for historic aviation campus at Paine Field

EVERETT — John Sessions wants to elevate Paine Field’s reputation among historic aircraft aficionados to an even higher level.

The Seattle attorney and developer introduced a plan last year to build a specialized campus at the Snohomish County Airport for displaying and restoring vintage airplanes. Now Sessions’ vision is supported by a study, which he submitted to the County Council in July.

The report, produced by lawyers, architects and an economist, estimates the campus could add more than $20 million per year to the local economy.

“The experience is greater than the sum of the parts when you have four or five world-class attractions,” Sessions said. “We’re on our way to being a top-10 or even a top-five destination as is. What would add some bandwidth to the experience would be to add some of the international institutions.”

The plan submitted to the county calls for five buildings averaging 30,000 square feet each on the southwest portion of Paine Field. There would be space for Sessions’ Historic Flight Foundation and other museums, as well as restoration shops and perhaps an educational center.

If it gets going, the complex could attract up to 150,000 visitors per year — more than half of them from outside the immediate area, the study estimated. The site would employ about 60 people.

A first phase of buildings, in theory, could be finished within two years and a final phase by 2019.

It’ll be up to elected officials to decide whether to try to make it happen. The county would have to set aside 12 acres of Paine Field real estate for a reduced-rate, or no-cost lease. The airport’s master plan designates the area for general aviation hangars.

Sessions has promised that the campus could operate without any public debt. Independent institutions would develop the buildings.

Paine Field already boasts a spectacular array of airplane museums and education centers.

There’s the Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour, which drew about 250,000 visitors last year.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has his Flying Heritage Collection and Sessions the Historic Flight Foundation.

Seattle’s Museum of Flight operates a restoration center at Paine Field.

It’s unclear which, if any, of the established attractions would want to relocate to the new campus.

Historic Flight’s 18,000-square-foot building next to the proposed campus is getting cramped, giving it incentive to upsize.

The Flying Heritage Collection, on the other hand, has undergone recent expansions. Future of Flight opened less than a decade ago and has undergone upgrades since then. The Museum of Flight is content with the two hangars it uses for restoring old planes.

“We’ve got a nice facility, so we’re pretty proud of that,” said Ted Huetter, a Museum of Flight spokesman. “We like the partnership that we have with all the aviation centers that are there.”

In a July 2 letter to county leaders, Sessions suggested that the critical mass of displays already at the airport, plus the Boeing brand, would “open doors to the board rooms of museums and collections in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and elsewhere in the United States.”

“Once the County formalizes its commitment, outreach should extend to the ‘who’s who’ of historic aviation,” he wrote.

The County Council in December passed a resolution expressing interest in Sessions’ proposal. The council promised to hold off on doing anything else with the land for six months.

County Council chairman Dave Somers said he wants to investigate the concept before making a commitment.

“We think it’s a great idea, it’s just what are the economic benefits. And are there other uses of that property we might be precluding?” Somers said. “We really need to analyze that land and the economics of it.”

The Federation Aviation Administration would need to approve any plans, including handing over the property. The study predicted the vintage aviation center would have no impact on airport operations.

The county also would need to decide the best legal arrangement for leasing the land. It could do so directly or charter a public development authority to oversee the lease.

The campus would take shape around Kilo 6, about a mile and a half south of the Future of Flight. An 80-acre property in between those two spots is vacant land zoned for industry.

Kilo 6 has been mostly vacant recently, except for a brief stint when Boeing used it to park new 787 jetliners. It sees some activity during aircraft festivals.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said he’s seen enough to get behind Sessions’ idea.

“I support going ahead with the project,” he said. “I think it’s dynamic. It highlights the past and the future. I think it’s a great deal.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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