SWEETWATER COUNTY– The Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport has signed a 20-year lease agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the 2nd floor of their West Hangar to be used as an aerial firefighting base for BLM fire crews during the summer fire season.
The 2nd floor of the West Hangar has been vacant for several years, which means it has had very little improvements made since it’s construction in 1970.
The airport board had budgeted $30,000 for design work in FY2020, with expectations of phasing the improvements out over multiple fiscal years through FY2022, according to Devon Brubaker, Airport Director. However, as per the lease agreement with the BLM, the airport now must provide a “warm-lit, code compliant shell” for the BLM by June 1, 2020.
Due to the quickly approaching deadline for completion, the airport needs funds quickly so they can start construction on the hangar.
Brubaker and Jim Wamsley, Airport Board Member, initiated a discussion with the Sweetwater County Commissioners on Tuesday about possible funding options, including county funding or a county loan. A high estimate for the total cost of the project is $750,000, according to Brubaker.
County Commission Chairman Wally Johnson asked Brubaker why the county was their first option for funding. Brubaker said county funding or a county loan is the most desirable funding option, as they can receive the funds quickly with no interest rates.
Brubaker explained to the commission that the process for a State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) loan is three to five months, which means they can’t start construction until that process is finished and funding is secured. With a SLIB loan or a bank loan, they would have to pay hefty interest rates as well.
“What do you think we’re going to charge you?” Johnson asked, regarding interest rates.
Brubaker said he assumed there would be no interest rate. A 10-year SLIB loan would have an interest rate of about 5.37 percent, while a 10-year bank loan would have an interest rate of about 7 percent or more, according to Brubaker.
Chairman Johnson asked if the airport was asking either Green River or Rock Springs to help fund the project. Brubaker said Green River is not part of the Joint Powers Airport Board, and that Rock Springs is already funding the airport $800,000 for their fuel farm. Therefore, the City of Rock Springs does not have much funds left to give the airport.
Wamsley explained that they are simply going through their options, and that they understand the City and County have other obligations.
According to Wamsley, this project is a positive one for not just the airport but also for the county as a whole. The building has been dormant for years, and this project is putting it in use. He also said the airport is important in creating jobs for the county.
Industry people fly into the community through the airport to look at economic development in the county. Those people are then the ones who create jobs in the community, Wamsley said.
In terms of economic development, Wamsley said “I believe the airport is crucial to that equation.”
Commissioner Jeff Smith said that diversifying the economy is crucial, and that this project seems to be one of those improvements that could help with diversification.
“Is $750,000 not worth it in the long run?” Smith asked.
Commissioner Roy Lloyd asked just how this specific project would help drive economic development. Wamsley said it will bring in seasonal enterprise. Firefighters and personnel will be staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, shopping at grocery stores, and will overall be active in the community’s economy.
Wamsley added that firefighting resources are increasingly important, as it increases Sweetwater County’s footprint in the Rocky Mountain region.
Airport Put Themselves in a “Bad Spot”
By signing a lease agreement with the BLM before having funding in place, Chairman Johnson said the airport is “putting the pressure” on the commissioners.
Johnson added that the airport is making commitments and then asking the county to bail them out.
Commissioner Lloyd had similar sentiments regarding how the airport is going about this specific project.
“You put yourself in a bad spot by making agreements before funding was secured,” Lloyd said.
Commissioners Smith and Randy Wendling expressed concerns regarding a county loan, as the interest is then put on the county residents’ taxpayer money.
Wendling said not only does the county have to provide the money for funding, but then also the interest.
“It’s taxpayers’ money chasing taxpayers’ money,” Wendling said.
The commissioners expressed their desire to look into all the funding options to ensure the legality of lending the money and to ensure they choose the best option for the county.
Brubaker asked that the commission not leave the decision hanging for too long so they have sufficient time to go for a SLIB loan if needed, which will be a three to five month process.
John DeLeon, Sweetwater County Deputy Attorney, said he can have the options prepared to present for the next commissioner meeting, which will be November 19.