By ASHLEY AMASON
Since the City of Defuniak Springs took over operations of the Defuniak Springs Municipal Airport for the first time in decades on Dec. 1, 2010, City Manager Kim Kirby sat down to discuss what led them to this point and what big dreams are up in the air.
Kirby noted that although the city manager is the official airport manager, over the years, it has had a series of different fixed base operators (FBO) who attended to day to day services.
Until recently, the City was involved in confidential litigation with the airport’s FBO. Having now settled the lawsuit, Kirby explained the operations exchange was the result of a lawsuit filed by former FBO Jonathan Dunn. Dunn was leased certain premises of the airport and provided refueling and minor services for pilots and planes, and earned revenue from the services offered.
The lawsuit’s unforeseen origin began in 2001 when the City entered into an agreement with AeroFX. “In 2006, [AeroFX] came to the City Council with request to sell their stock to another individual who was interested in taking over,” Kirby recalled, “Jonathan Dunn.” The council approved the transaction and according to Kirby the relationship with Dunn began well. “He was very energetic, and brought a lot of good ideas. We were all excited about the possibilities” she said.
However, a year-and-a-half later, Dunn started questioning the lease, which eventually led to a contract dispute. To be exact, he questioned the leased premises as defined under the lease, proposing it included more than the terminal building.
“It was always our belief and opinion that the leased premises was the terminal building,” Kirby said. “It was his belief that if the leased premises was a larger area, he would be due back rent for the T-hangars [which] house smaller, general aviation planes.”
Kirby and Dunn attempted to renegotiate the lease, but negotiations failed. The City soon received a notice that Dunn’s intent was to receive back rent on T-hangars constructed in 2004, before he was even the FBO. “We were served with a lawsuit, and tried an informal negotiation and that failed” Kirby recalled.
The City’s position over the dispute was two-fold. First, “It was our opinion and the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) opinion, that whether those were leased premises or not, he would not be entitled to back rent because those [hangars] were built with public dollars (grant funds) to help bring in his customer base and that’s how he grows his business” Kirby stated.
Second, “In speaking with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and FDOT representatives, who were updated throughout the process, the concern was raised that if the lease was perceived as a larger area than just the terminal building there could be the possibility that the airport could be viewed as a private airport, not a public airport. And if pubic dollars have been invested in a private airport, then there would be no more funding from FDOT or FAA, which in essence would cease any future development of the airport.”
The city’s remaining contract with Dunn at that time was 14 years, which brought them to the question: Do we take the risk of it being viewed as a private airport and receive no more future funding for at least 14 years, or does the City buyout Dunn’s contract and takeover?
“The timing was right for us to consider the City buying out his lease” Kirby said. “With all of the risks to consider and potential benefits, the end result was to buyout the lease [at a price of $685,000].”
The buyout came at the same time the City was updating the airport master plan and it now looks upon the possibilities with new eyes.
Included in the plans are an East-West runway extension to 5,000 feet making it suitable for larger plane landings, more hangars and corporate space, a paved access road, and possible hotel and restaurant. The current Gene Hurley athletic complex, which is being relocated to land adjacent to the Wee Care Park, may be incorporated into the master plan as well.
Kirby clarified the North-South dirt runway will not be paved or extended because at a user’s meeting, the pilots requested to keep it dirt, and extending is impossible due to topography as well as an Eglin air space violation.
With the council’s approval, former City special projects coordinator Kelly Schulz has been assigned the role of interim airport manager and Scott Singletary was hired as line technician. Kirby praised both, saying Schulz’s prior airport experience has served the City well and “the pilots love her” and “[Singletary] has a lot of knowledge, loves aviation, and is doing a great job.”
On Feb. 14, an airport users meeting will be scheduled to discuss what they would like to see in the future of the airport. An open house will follow the meeting. On potential job creation, Kirby said, “We’re really excited about what can happen.”
For those who have only seen the airport from U.S. 90, Kirby and Singletary invite you to sit on the swings one afternoon and watch the planes come in (a Kirby family tradition on Sunday afternoons with a Sonic blast). For those who want to do more than watch the planes, flying lessons will be offered in the near future.