Oklahoma Aeronautics Commissioners prolonged the life of Lake Murray State Park Airport in Ardmore on Thursday despite the request of the state Tourism and Recreation Department — and the commission's own director — to close the rarely used airstrip.
The commission considered asking the Federal Aviation Administration to close the facility, which is adjacent to Lake Murray Lodge and Lake Murray Golf Course. The Aeronautics Commission and Tourism Department are joint sponsors of the site.
But after debating the airport's viability and usefulness, commissioners voted 6-0 against closing it — going against commission Director Victor Bird's recommendation.
Their concerns included giving up the ability to accept $150,000 in federal money each year, in the form of non-primary entitlement funds, that can be transferred to other airports. Roughly $1 million has been received since 2001, not including $600,000 in the bank that probably will be transferred next year.
In addition, the airport has accepted nearly $184,000 in grants from the FAA since 2002, after agreeing to keep the airport open for at least 20 years. The most recent was in 2007. If the contract terms aren't met, it's likely the grant money would have to be repaid.
The FAA, on July 16, asked the commission to delay action while the agency conducts an 18-month study of general aviation airports across the nation.
“I have grave concerns about moving forward,” Bird said before the vote. “We have an excellent relationship with the FAA.” Despite his concerns, he recommended they join the Tourism Department and seek closure — if the executive director of the Tourism Department agrees to share equally any funds that have to be repaid to the FAA. Later, Bird said he felt torn about the decision.
The Tourism Department has been asking to have the airport shuttered since 2006 and will continue to seek closure, said department spokeswoman Leslie Blair. The department wants to use the runway area to develop a new entrance to the golf course. A project to redevelop Lake Murray Lodge, at a cost of up to $15 million, is getting under way and is expected to wrap up in 2015.
Tourism workers already shuttle visitors to the lodge from two nearby airports: Ardmore Municipal Airport, about 26 miles away, or Ardmore Downtown Executive Airport, just 7 miles north.
Claudia Conner, deputy director and general counsel at the Tourism Department, told commissioners at the meeting that the airport is rarely used — one landing a month, and fewer in winter. Usage statistics aren't kept at the airport because there is no air traffic control tower.
Nor is there electricity, so aircraft can't land at night. Conner called the airstrip “an eyesore.”
Commission staff recently reviewed all airports under their jurisdiction and found that to increase demand at Lake Murray airport, the runway would have to be extended beyond its current 2,500 feet, but a paved road on one end and a terrain drop-off make that cost-prohibitive. Also, the pavement is nearing the end of its useful life. And the public is better served by Ardmore Downtown Executive Airport's jet-capable runway, Bird said.
Still, private pilots and others wrote in support of retaining the airport.
System drops lone airport
At its meeting Thursday, the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission considered removing three general aviation airports from the Oklahoma Airport System. The move would make the airports ineligible for state funding. Considered were: Westport Airport, Pawnee Municipal Airport and Tenkiller Lake Airpark. Commissioners voted to remove Pawnee Municipal Airport from the system; the other two