Study says Paine Field should be used for business, not museum

EVERETT — A new study questions the wisdom of setting aside land at Paine Field for a nonprofit historic aircraft aviation center that could attract exhibits — and tourists — from around the globe.

Aircraft collector John Sessions has been pursuing the idea for about two years. Several elected leaders in Snohomish County and local cities have endorsed it.

When Sessions made a formal pitch to council members in August, however, airport director Arif Ghouse called it “a bad proposal — a really bad proposal — for Paine Field.”

The review Ghouse submitted to council members Monday fell in line with that negative view. It casts doubt on claims the Sessions’ facility would provide an economic boost by attracting 150,000 new visitors to the area. It suggests the county would be better off leasing the land at market rate for corporate jet hangars or some other business use.

“Forecasting visitors to new museums is notoriously difficult,” Ghouse told council members, later adding, “There is a history of new venues diverting visitors from existing venues.”

Washington, D.C.-based consultant GRA Inc. was paid $9,100 to perform the study.

A follow-up discussion on Sessions’ project is scheduled during a special council committee meeting at 1 p.m. Oct. 19.

The proposed campus of museums, renovation facilities and more would occupy the west side of the county airport. Five new buildings would take shape around the hangar that houses vintage planes at Sessions’ Historic Flight Foundation.

To make it happen, the county would need to supply 12.8 acres of airport land at a substantially reduced lease or even for free.

Ghouse said he wants to give elected leaders good advice on crucial decisions.

But some council members said they were caught off guard when Ghouse presented the new information Monday with little advance notice. Afterward, Councilman Brian Sullivan accused airport staff of meddling in policy matters instead of doing their job running the airport.

“Airport staff ambushed John Sessions and myself and presented information that we were unaware of and unable to respond to,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also had confronted Ghouse during the August meeting when the airport director called Sessions’ plan “a really bad proposal.”

Sessions stands by his team’s work on the project and promised rewards for thinking big. Money could come in through an admissions tax as well as an influx of tourists, he said.

“At what level do you want this to be positioned?” Sessions asked. “If it’s a county project, then maybe you’re better off with corporate hangars. But if your vision extends to different parts of the world and attracting international players, then you have to look at things in a different way. You have to elevate the vision.”

Elected officials in local cities, including Everett, Lynnwood and Mukilteo, have written letters in support of the idea.

The land in question could command about $350,000 per year in rent. Ghouse has said he’s received inquiries from businesses interested in building corporate jet hangars there, among other proposals. There’s enough room for at least 39 jets, with each airplane bringing in up to $2.4 million for the local economy, he said.

A free or reduced lease could create a fairness issue with other aircraft collections at the airport, which pay more than $1.2 million in combined rent, Ghouse has warned. Those facilities include Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection and the Museum of Flight’s Restoration Center.

The airport director also has raised the possibility of the county losing out on federal airport grants if it forgoes fair-market offers for the land.

The airport operates entirely on user fees, rather than on property taxes.

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

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