OAK HARBOR — The A.J. Eisenberg Airport went up for sale in August, and the Port of Coupeville has its eye on the property.
Though a decision about a purchase is still a long way off, locals affiliated with the airport are hopeful the port can revitalize the airport and restore some of its former services.
“Back in the day, the airport was much more useful to the community than it is now, and it speaks to what it could be,” said local pilot Mark Varljen. “This ownership transition is an opportunity to get it into a better place.”
The airport has seen a steady decline over the past two decades. Harbor Air, the airline that once owned the airport, bit the dust in 2001 after 30 years of service when it ran into financial trouble. A Whidbey News-Times article from the time reported that the company had more than $1 million in debts.
When Harbor Air abruptly ceased operations, a plethora of lien holders stepped forward to claim ownership of the airport, until Air International, a limited liability corporation owned in part by Joel Eisenberg, swooped in to purchase the airport’s debts. Eisenberg then embarked on a nearly decade-long legal battle for ownership of the airport.
While Eisenberg and others waded through the swamps of litigation, Kenmore Air began service to Whidbey Island, but Oak Harbor turned out to be an unprofitable stop for the airline, and it pulled the plug on its Whidbey operations late in 2008, just months before Eisenberg finally achieved legal ownership of the airport in the summer of 2009.
Since then, no airline has offered regularly scheduled flights from the airport.
That isn’t to say the local airport has been sitting empty all these years. The Eisenberg provides a number of other services, such as charter flights for passengers, affordable fuel sales to other nearby small airports, flight instruction, private sightseeing and plane and hangar rentals.
Bringing back commercial service, however, would be a real asset for the community, according to Varljen. In an Aug. 11 presentation to the Port of Coupeville board of commissioners, he outlined the economic benefits a revitalized Oak Harbor airport could bring to the island, including enhancement of the transportation network and the jobs a full-time commercial operation would engender.
Don Meehan, a pilot who has been with the airport for more than 25 years, said the airport is well positioned for commercial flights. Surrounded by sprawling farmland rather than tightly packed residential communities, the airport doesn’t have many neighbors to be bothered by its noise.
The Port of Coupeville is uniquely positioned to revive the airport, Varljen said. As a government entity, the port has potential access to grants and other funding sources private individuals or institutions don’t have.
The port also has the express purpose of promoting economic development, and Varljen said he thinks the port would be more inclined to make decisions with the community in mind than a profit-driven private company.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the Port of Coupeville has eyed the airport. Shortly after becoming the legal owner of the airport in 2009 — and subsequently naming the airport after himself — Eisenberg approached the port about purchasing the airport. Eisenberg’s own lofty development dreams, including the construction of new hangars, weren’t coming to fruition as he had imagined.
“Basically I never intended on owning an airport and I don’t know much about it,” he told port commissioners during a meeting late in 2009.
Despite support from local pilots at the time, port commissioners ultimately decided against the acquisition.
“The port was the actual best customer for taking this thing on because ports are about economic development,” Meehan said. “But our port was busy with the Greenbank Farm and had a huge financial liability with Greenbank Farm, so they didn’t have a bunch of money to be tossing around to buy airports.”
Now, the timing might be right, but port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos said the airport is still on the back burner as the port keeps its focus on the pending industrial development district it has been working to implement for the past several months.
The airport consists of five buildings, a parking lot, one runway and a sizable empty field. It sits on 51.98 acres of land and is on the market for $2.1 million.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.
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