GEOFF LITKE and ERIC YOLLICK, The Golden Hammer
Conroe, June 4 – On May 16, 2017, The Golden Hammer‘s Geoff Litke, Eric Yollick, and a lady who just goes by “Famous Notary,” journeyed to the Montgomery County Airport on Airport Road north of Conroe to tour the facility and meet with Airport Director Scott Smith and Airport Assistant Director James Brown.
Excerpts from the interview follow. Smith and Brown jointly answer most of the questions and were very gracious throughout the interview and tour.
GH: Do you offer tours of the airport?
A: We do on demand. Most commercial services airports don’t even have observation decks any more. We do school tours and the Army helps us depending on the group and what they have going on.
GH: Who owns the airport?
A: The County owns it all. Any hangar tenant is on leased land.
GH: Do people live here?
A: A part time employee does for security. It’s an interesting story which comes from 35 years ago. His dad was Pete Nichols. There was a huge benefit having him at the airport full time. His son Terry moved here and took his father’s place.
GH: So are there federal restrictions or obligations regarding people living at the airport?
A: When you accept federal grant money, which Montgomery County has accepted, there are 32 or 33 conditions and promises which are called “FAA grant assurances.” One of those grant assurances is that people can’t live at the airport as set forth in the airport compliance manual.
GH: Regarding the recent The Golden Hammer article which raised some concerns about the airport maintenance costs, what is the status of the cleaning project which the Commissioners Court has approved?
A: It is out for bid on the cleaning, but not the striping, because there is a blanket purchase agreement on the stripes and stops that already covers the striping.
GH: What portion of the $187,000 total price is the re-marking?
A: $44,107.00 is the remarking The cleaning is out for bid. We want to avoid using grant money.
GH: Since you’re paying for the cleaning out of prepaid lease funds, please explain ow do you have prepaid leases?
A: The lease itself called for prepayment. Black forest Ventures has a 40 year lease prepaid with a prepaid 20 year extension. This is just for the land (15 acres) and they built everything in the Galaxy FBO. It was a development plan approved by the county and it is complete as of right now.
GH: Why are you retiring, Mr. Smith?
A: I’ve been doing this for 27 years and its been a good career. It’s a good time for me to make a change and a good time for the airport. When I came onboard I had five initiatives I wanted to implement.
GH: What are those initiatives?
Initiative 1) Get a control tower, which we did and opened in May of 2009. The tower is a county facility with TXDOT and FAA Funds. The FAA staffs the tower. For them it is a good deal since it costs them $650,000.00 annually, whereas if the tower belonged to them it would be over a million a year. There are 233 towers like this one. It’s more traffic for the dollar.
Initiative 2) Open the southeast side of the Airport for development and put out a request for proposal for the acreage. We wanted a good modern facility there.
GH: The FBO is in the building and anyone can fly in and use their facility?
GH: How does a pilot choose an FBO?
A: They just choose. There are websites and apps that help them locate them. We have minimum standards to be an FBO. We make them provide services. It’s a way of making sure the aviation community is served by that provider and that they’re not just taking profit on fuel.
GH: When someone uses an FBO’s services, do they usually receive local transportation?
GH: No one lives in the FBOs right?
A: No one lives there. The FBO’s are required to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Q: What kind of revenue do they generate for the Airport?
A: There are primarily two sources of revenue for the Airport: fuel flowage and land lease. We make roughly 5 cents a gallon adding an additional $12,000.00 revenue to our operation.
Q: Is General Aviation a prepaid FBO?
A: No. The County decided to do a prepaid lease with Black Forest Ventures, which gave the court significant capital improvement dollars. Those funds go into the general fund. One of the FAA grant assurances is to keep books and demonstrate revenues. You don’t have to have an enterprise fund [which segregates the dollars received under a prepaid lease] because it’s not permitted to be spent on anything else other than the Airport. When these leases start reverting, the financial situation of the County begins to improve, because their improvements and fixtures remain behind as the property of the County. That’s the long range strategy.
Black Forest Ventures owns Galaxy FBO. There are 28 years left for General Aviation. A lease extension is VERY EXPENSIVE. These smaller FBOs will never get an extension. Our first reversions start in 15 years. It’s a good operational model and it works.
GH: What is the situation with the U.S. Customs Service?
A: They’re a tenant of that building owner. The Wing family runs that facility. With the Customs Service here, we’ve cleared 100 airplanes. That’s more than the first year of expectations. We can expect four to six hundred clearings a year in about six years. They’re coming from Mexico, Canada, Carribean and even some from Europe.
GH: How do you keep drug dealers out?
A: They track it. The DEA tracks every plane. They know where you’re going. They’ll meet you on the ramp with guns when necessary!
GH: What about fees from customs?
A: Yes, we charge based on weights and times. There are standard and overtime rates.
GH: What is the third initiative you mentioned?
A: Initiative 3) Extend the runway, which we did in March of 2015. It was partly paid for with grant money, TXDOT funds, and the Airport paid about 12%.
GH: The fourth initiative?
Initiative 4) A Name change. This put us through some angst. Our first idea was not good to make it Lone Star alone. They kind of thought it was in Texas, but finally we settled on something with a geographic identity. In 20 years the Conroe area is going to generate much more economic growth. So we’re happy with the name Conroe-North Houston Airport.
Initiative 5) Install the US Customs facility. We partnered with several groups in the area. The Woodlands Township rescinded its support at some point in November 2016. Shenandoah and the Woodlands Economic Development Partnership, however, provided the funding.
GH: Why pick this airport over Hooks or other airports?
A: There’s nothing north of us with as much traffic. If you’re not going to IAH or Hooks, then we’re it. There’s a few reasons to pick here over Hooks. (1) Geography. It’s easier to get in and out airspace wise. You take off here and you’re going right where you want due to restricted air closer into the city. (2) Fuel contracts. (3) The facility itself.
GH: What kind of traffic do you see through here?
A: Everything from A-Z. We see agricultural, big box retail companies, banks, Exxon, Mary Kay, WWF, it’s all over the place, it’s a wide variety.
GH: What about commercial jets?
A: Being 25 miles from IAH that’s not the point and never was; we’re not competing.
GH: If you look at the dollars coming in and the cost is it profitable?
A: No, it’s a loss. We’re operating in the red at about $34,000.00 which is not unusual for an Airport. We’re making great progress towards being self sustaining.
GH: This newspaper has taken a hard look at carryover funds in County Departments. Does the Airport get to keep unspent carryover funds in its annual budget?
A: There’s no carryover for us. Once it becomes an enterprise the FAA restricts the amount you carryover. Its our goal to be self sustaining and set aside funds for capital improvement. When we start getting reversions it will be pretty quick that we’ll have a lot of funds available.
GH: Does the DEA have its own hangar?
A: Yes with about 5 aircraft.
GH: Have you had complaints about airport noise?
A: There are little to no complaints about noise.
GH: Does the Airport have special provisions for bad weather conditions?
A: This airport has an ILS or Instrument Landing System, so that pilots can land in the dark or during bad weather.