Uncertain future for state aviation center

By Katheran Wasson and Paul Glasser Published:

The Kentucky Institute for Aerospace Education may have to move to Southern Indiana if an agreement to build a 12,000-square-foot facility at the Capital City Airport falls through.

Tim Smith, a teacher at Frankfort High School and chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization, says he’s got a lease in hand for use of a hangar at the airport – but no signature.

The deal was contingent upon a corporate entity signing on to occupy a second hangar, but no one bid on the project.

That’s hindering the group’s fundraising chances for the project, he said, and it could force the institute to move to another airport.

The facility would serve as headquarters for the statewide institute, and a site for summer aviation camps and teacher training.

Smith says he hoped to reach the first phase of construction before this winter.

“We weren’t looking at other options up until now, and now the latest issues that have come across have made us re-examine our other options,” he told The State Journal this week.

“It has taken us two years to get this lease (in Frankfort), and it’s taken us two days to find a hangar in Indiana – it’s just amazing the time it takes to get something done.”

Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said the agency is not pulling the plug on the lease agreement with the aviation institute.

The Transportation Cabinet issued a request for proposals to expand the airport ramp but got no responses, Wolfe said. Since no companies responded, the project was withdrawn from last week’s bidding, he said.

The ramp expansion would cost about $300,000.

“Since there was no proposal for the hangar there is no need to go spend money on an apron out there,” Wolfe said. “That doesn’t mean the project cannot be put back into a future letting.”

But Smith says aviation students can use the existing infrastructure without finding a second tenant.

The institute would be willing to install a gravel parking lot and work out agreements with state and local governments to improve utility service to the area, he said in an email sent to The State Journal and state transportation and education officials last week

Wolfe said transportation officials will meet with members of the institute Aug. 10 to discuss the situation.

“It appears there is a disagreement between the folks associated with the institute and our agency,” Wolfe said. “Officials at the airport are not opposed to the concept at all.”

Before the cabinet can agree to a lease for the airport hangar, the institute must have funding secured, Wolfe said.

“We want that security to ensure the project would get completed,” he said.

However, Smith said the institute needs a lease before it can start fundraising.

Aviation students currently work in a small hanger without heat. A new hangar would allow them to avoid weather problems and house more planes.

The entire project, which could include a library, classrooms, and flight simulators, is projected to cost $1.5 million.

Besides the cost of renovations, use of the facility at Capital City Airport would have been free of charge because of an interagency agreement negotiated between the University of Kentucky and the state government.

Smith says his organization is exploring other options as they await the Aug. 10 meeting with Transportation Cabinet officials.

One possibility is moving to Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville. There is an airport there that is move-in ready, Smith says, and the location is closer to corporate aviation facilities in Louisville.

It would also allow the institute to expand to high schools in Indiana and collaborate with postsecondary partners like Indiana State University or Purdue University.

But the first priority is to stay in Kentucky, Smith says.

Sixteen schools across Kentucky participate in the institute, which has supported aerospace education programs in schools for the last two years.

Smith one day hopes to receive a retired 727 from FEDEX, but the plane would be a static learning tool – it would be too expensive to operate and maintain, he said.

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