(SHREVEPORT, LA) The Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce is getting involved to try to settle a dispute between the Shreveport Downtown Airport and the people who own hangars there.
According to Shreveport’s Director of Airports, Henry Thompson, the downtown airport is $150,000 in debt.
A recent audit by the Federal Aviation Administration revealed that the airport is struggling financially because for decades, management has failed to enforce existing policies. The FAA said failure to enforce those policies moving forward could cost the airport millions of dollars in federal grant money for much-needed improvements.
"Unfortunately, the finances have just deteriorated to a point where we can't kick the can down the road any longer. We must deal with it," Thompson told KTBS in May, before the audit was published.
Thompson, who has been director since 2015, wants to start enforcing FAA policies, but he’s been met by resistance from tenants.
Specifically, Thompson wants to enforce reversion clauses that appear in every lease at the downtown airport. The clause gives the airport ownership of airplane hangars at the end of each lease.
Currently, tenants rent only the land from the airport. Tenants use their own money to build hangars on the land, and don’t want to give up their investments.
“Folks out here have been maintaining these structures at the highest level for many, many years and putting a lot of money into these hangars that they have not achieved the full benefit of,” said Laurel Rice Brightwell, whose family owns a hangar. “That's one of the reasons why the tenants out here are pretty upset."
After the FAA released the audit in May, the agency gave the airport until August 1 to come up with a plan to get out of debt and into compliance. So far, the airport and tenants are at an impasse.
Dr. Timothy Magner, president of the chamber of commerce, has offered to provide the city and tenants with a third-party mediator to come up with a solution.
“(Downtown airport) is a huge contributor to the economic life of the community,” Magner said. “The idea that you have something that attracts not just businesses, but enthusiasts -- really providing a unique asset to a community. And to have that undercut, or to have people abandoning it or to have it being less that the kind of attractive amenity that we should have in this community – I think would be a real disappointment.”
Magner said he’s been researching the issue and understands tenants are used to getting a great bargain on their leases.
According to the FAA audit, leases at the downtown airport average $100 a month to house an airplane. The audit said tenants are getting that deal because past airport directors didn't enforce existing policies, like the reversion clause. Now that the relatively new director wants to enforce those policies, the tenants don't want to change the status quo.
"If you've spent 40 years not implementing the rules, and you decide, 'Well, today we're going to implement the rules,' well, people have made investments and other decisions based on their clear set of expectations,” Magner said. "I think there's a third way here. The question is, what does it take to get to that third way?"
For starters, Magner thinks a gradual shift in policy would be better than an abrupt one.
"It's kind of like the Nicorette of an approach here,” Magner said. “What we're trying to do here is step people down off of this idea that there are unlimited leases or forever leases. But at the same time, I think there's a recognition that the airport has to be financially stable."
“We are still conducting negotiations related to the leases at Shreveport Downtown Airport,” Thompson said. “The city is interested in amicably resolving this matter and will explore all options that comply with FAA regulations and guidance.”
Magner will meet with Mayor Ollie Tyler this week to talk about hiring the mediator.
This is the second time Magner has gotten involved in a dispute between a government agency and the private sector. He's also trying to settle differences between the Metropolitan Planning Commission and builders who say it takes too long to get projects approved.