Paine Field aviation center proposal raises revenue concerns

EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders could decide soon on clearing the way for a vast expansion of Paine Field’s already impressive trove of vintage airplanes.

If the vision from aircraft collector John Sessions materializes, the community stands to gain a cluster of world-class exhibits on the west side of Paine Field. It would add to the Boeing Tour, Future of Flight and other historic aviation facilities on airport grounds.

To make it happen, though, the county would have to donate — or at least forgo — lease revenue on more than 12 acres of prime airport real estate. And that’s causing heartburn for airport officials.

“There are other entities that have expressed interest in that area for fair market value,” airport director Arif Ghouse said. “What we recommend — bottom line — is not to give away airport land for no rent.”

The decision rests with the County Council.

Sessions is prepared to present his proposal during a council committee meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Airport officials also plan to share their concerns publicly for the first time.

Sessions first pitched his plan to the county in late 2013. He wants to create what he calls a historic aviation campus.

An attorney and developer, Sessions founded the Historic Flight Foundation in 2003 to focus on airplanes built between 1927 and 1957. He opened a facility at Paine Field in 2010 with space to display more than a dozen planes at a time. Now, the collection is outgrowing the 18,000-square-foot building.

The campus concept grew from thoughts about how to expand. The idea is to add another five buildings nearby, along taxiway Kilo 6. The new buildings would each average about 28,000 square feet.

“What really gave this steam was two years ago, when the county came out with its strategic plan for tourism,” Sessions said. “Paine Field was the main draw. We should do everything we can to make it successful. Why don’t we see what we can do with our plans to expand?”

Sessions contends there’s no downside to his proposal. He’s in touch with people in charge of some of the world’s preeminent aircraft museums. He believes he could get them on board — if the county commits the space.

“We’re just a bit player in this,” he said. “Our goal is to have five world-class collections (or museum exhibits) here.”

Sessions has made presentations about the proposal to elected officials in Arlington, Everett, Lynnwood, Mukilteo and Snohomish. City leaders have reacted with uniform support, he said.

Paine Field administrators, however, said the 12-plus acres Sessions wants for his campus could command about $350,000 per year in rent. They’ve received lease inquires from two parties other than Sessions, including a company that wants to build corporate hangars on five to seven acres.

The Boeing Co. currently has a short-term lease to use the area around taxiway Kilo 6 for parking jets. The aerospace giant pays a rate of $200,000 per year.

Instead of Sessions’ plan, airport officials want to put out a request for proposals to see what kind of interest the land gets from other parties.

Beyond lost lease revenue, county officials worry about being disqualified from Federal Aviation Administration grants, which have funded about $52 million in Paine Field development during the past decade.

County officials sought the FAA’s advice about Session’s concept. The head of the FAA’s Seattle District Office said it presents several potential problems.

In one version of the campus proposal, the county would deed over the land to a governing authority for the aviation campus, which in turn would lease out the land. The FAA said there could be a negative impact on other airport uses if the county gives up control of the land.

A free or reduced lease also could create a fairness issue with other aircraft collections at the airport, which pay more than $1.2 million in combined rent.

Additionally, former Paine Field director Dave Waggoner, in an email to the FAA last year, said some of Sessions’ economic assumptions were “difficult to understand and appear to be exaggerated.”

Sessions maintains the county stands to recoup the land’s value many times over if the campus takes shape. Private investment in roads and utilities alone would reach $3 million.

At worst, he said, the county would get the land back in a few years if his vision doesn’t take off.

He even hired a Washington, D.C., attorney who formerly served as the FAA’s chief counsel to rebut the conclusions reached by Paine Field administrators.

“It should not lead to any kind of problem with the FAA whatsoever,” Sessions said.

County Council members can move the issue for action at a future meeting, or take more time to think it over.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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