Commissioners pitched on Eureka Airport project

A pricey proposal to add a jet fuel tank to the Eureka Airport met with a muted response from county commissioners earlier this month.

Bill Caldwell of the county airport board and Nick Enblom of Morrison-Maierle, an engineering firm, told commissioners Dec. 8 that the roughly $472,000 project would help meet a growing demand for Jet A fuel at the airfield. The county airport board developed the proposal with 2022 in mind, they said.

“What brought this up is that there has been a recent influx and interest in business jet type activity up there — people wanting to put in hangers,” Caldwell said. “There is some business activity that may or may not happen, but fuel is a limiting factor and so it seemed like maybe now is the time to try and put in a Jet A facility.”

Enblom said that airport officials already had applied for a grant through the Montana Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division to cover the cost of the project. They would know by mid-January how the state planned on allocating its money for airport work, he said.

But, Enblom warned, the county may not receive the full amount requested. In that case, the county could take out a loan — also administered through the state Aeronatutics Division — for the remainder, he said. He said he thought it was likely that the county could dip into American Rescue Plan Act dollars to repay the loan.

County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) thanked the pair for pitching the idea, but expressed reservations about the funding model. He wondered whether the business garnered from the fuel upgrade would cover the cost of the project in the long term.

“I’m not totally against the loan if the revenue is there to pay it back,” Bennett told Caldwell and Enblom.

Caldwell said he suspected the revenue generated by fuel sales would not pay off the loan in the short term. He said the airport earns about 10 cents for every gallon of fuel dispersed.

When Bennett and County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) pressed him on specifics, Caldwell could only answer in vague terms. How much fuel is used at the airfield depends on a variety of factors, he said. Last year, the airports went through 20,000 gallons a week at times, mostly for firefighting efforts.

Bennett recommended that the airport board begin compiling statistics on items like fuel usage. That would give commissioners data to work with, he said.

“That would be something the board would want to look at: Compiling that on an annual basis so when things arise like that we have the information to base decisions on instead of just assuming,” Bennett told Caldwell.

Bennett also asked after ARPA funding the county’s airports already had received. Each got about $29,000 in federal relief dollars, Enblom said. According to Wendy Drake of the county’s finance department, the Eureka Airport had about $12,000 left over.

Bennett said he might be more amenable to the project once airport officials learned about the status of their grant request and ironed out the commissioners’ funding questions.

“It’s not in my nature to borrow the money and hope it gets paid back,” Bennett said.