Town meets with RIAC

Thu, 02/21/2019 - 6:30pm
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Town Manager Ed Roberge said he expressed his frustration about the situation at the Block Island Airport to Rhode Island Airport Corporation representatives at a meeting on the mainland on Thursday, Feb. 14, but added he is hopeful that some long-term, out-of-the box thinking can resolve the issue favorably for the town, the state, and the airport.

Roberge also told The Block Island Times that he felt the contract awarded to a local company as the airport’s fixed based operator may have been “a little premature.”

There have been other developments.First Warden Ken Lacoste has had to recuse bimself from all discussions about the airport given that he is related to Andy Transue, the RIAC employee at the Block Island Airport. State Rep. Blake Filippi has also notified stakeholders that he, too, has recused himself, and also his staff, from all discussions because he has a business connection with Block Island Reservations, the local company that was awarded the FBO contract by RIAC a couple of weeks ago.

Island resident Henry duPont, who has been a frequent and vocal critic of how RIAC has handled the fixed base operator situation at the airport, fired off another letter to airport stakeholders, questioning the credentials of Block Island Reservations to run the airport, and asked again why RIAC was treating the Block Island State Airport differently than the other four general aviation airports on the mainland.

Roberge attended the Feb. 14 meeting with Town Council member Sven Risom, along with several RIAC officials, including Alan Andrade, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, and also John Baxter of the State Senate Office of Constituent Services. Baxter said he had been asked by State Sen. Susan Sosnowski to attend the discussions since the airport issue with the FBO arose last year and that he was there to keep up to speed on the matter.

Roberge said the main avenues of concern expressed to RIAC officials centered on the way the revenue generated at the airport is distributed, making it difficult for the on-base operator to turn a profit. “The revenue for an FBO is very limited,” said Roberge. He said RIAC keeps the revenue from all the leases in the building — tenants include Bethany’s Airport Diner and the Block Island Tourism Director’s office — as well as tie-down fees.

“We challenged RIAC on their business practice. This is not a sustainable practice,” said Roberge. “This makes it very, very scarce for an operator to come along. We need to find a better way, and to make sure that the Town Council needs to make some policy decision about what it wants done up there. Even the rental of cars. The council needs to be contemplating that.” All of this is what caused Roberge to say that the awarding of the FBO contract may have been premature.

When asked how RIAC responded to these comments, Roberge said it “was difficult to get a clear answer on that. It’s kind of a frustrating thing.” He added that “there’s a level of unfairness” to the way the Block Island Airport is being treated, but added “there are opportunities that could make the airport stronger and serve the people better. The onus is on RIAC.”

(An email sent to Andrade was returned stating he would be out of the office.)

In his letter to RIAC stakeholders, duPont said that town officials had asked RIAC management “to consider restoring an experienced FBO service provider and to also ask RIAC not to violate the town’s zoning laws, which did not permit additional car or moped rentals at the airport. Our representatives said that RIAC was very disappointed in the town's position, but that they would try to be considerate of the town's concerns. 

“As we see it, there are three possible outcomes:

“1. RIAC goes ahead with their intention to engage B.I. Reservations and the town will decide to defend their rental motor vehicle regulations with litigation.

“2. RIAC re-engages FlightLevel Aviation, to return to Block Island, hire experienced airport attendants, and continue to successfully manage the airport like they did last summer. FlightLevel Aviation would likely be available if RIAC provides the funding necessary for them to operate the facility profitably.

“3. RIAC lets their [airport] maintenance employee hire additional part-time staff to run the Airport for RIAC this summer, while RIAC rethinks how they should straighten this out.

“We are naturally hoping that they will select option 2 because Flightlevel is working on enhancing the FBO services at all the State GA Airports and there is no reason why our airport is not included in this process.”

duPont went on to say, “In summary, it is naturally disappointing that RIAC made such a significant change in how they manage their five General Aviation Airports without notifying the Town of New Shoreham and the other Airport Stakeholders.  It is also disappointing that when we told them that there would be a hue and cry over this when we first heard about it last August, that they did not reconsider. RIAC, if nothing else, hates any negative publicity which they easily could have avoided if they had treated Block Island like everywhere else.” 

Risom said that he came away from the meeting with the feeling that while the town will defend its zoning laws, “the town and the council should also look at all different revenue streams,” including the rental of cars, bikes, or scooters, or perhaps storage units and the selling of fuel, in order to make the management of the airport more financially attractive. “I think other services should be discussed,” he said, while also not impacting safety at the airport. He called the discussion “very productive, very positive” while also noting that the “onus was very much on RIAC” to sort the situation out.