Leasing rift has Heritage Flight Museum considering new home

Citing unfavorable lease terms for an aviation museum, directors with Heritage Flight Museum expect to leave the Bellingham International Airport, possibly within the next few months.

The nonprofit group has been in talks with the Port of Bellingham to build a facility at the airport since first moving there in 2001.

But Greg Anders, the museum’s executive director, said costly leasing terms that were not anticipated have led to the plans being scrapped.

He said while the organization was not in a hurry to leave, it could move by spring 2013.

Anders mentioned Paine Field in Everett as one option for a new home, but he said the museum was considering several airports around the region.

“We have to be at an airport,” Anders said. “We are already looking at some future sites.”

Heritage Flight Museum, which is dedicated to preserving and flying historic military aircraft, according to its website, was founded in 1996 by William Anders (Greg Anders’ father), an Apollo 8 astronaut.

The organization hosts a variety of community events—including popular, monthly “Fly Days”—and maintains a collection of aircraft flown during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

For the past decade, Heritage has operated out of a hangar owned by Apogree LLC, a firm owned by William Anders.

Recently, Heritage had plans drawn up for a facility that would be located off the north end of the airport’s runway. The concept included a museum, library, cafe and picnic area, as well as decommissioned aircraft on permanent display near the building’s entrance.

But now, the organization will look elsewhere.

For Daniel Zenk, the port’s aviation director, the announcement was unexpected.

“We haven’t talked to Heritage Flight Museum since August [of this year],” Zenk said. “This comes as a shock and a surprise.”

Anders said the decision to leave came after a recent offer from port officials that would have the museum lease land for its building at a rate of $3,500 per month for 25 years, after which the port would have the option of taking ownership of the facility.

The offer was not tenable for the small, nonprofit museum, Anders said.

It was also not an offer the museum’s directors were expecting to receive.

When Heritage moved to the Bellingham airport 11 years ago, its directors believed the port would offer to lease land to the museum at a nominal rate of $1 per year, Anders said.

The understanding, according to Anders, was that the low rate would be justified due to the potential tourism the museum could attract, as well as a desire of port leadership to add a unique component to the Bellingham airport.

In an internal memorandum, dated Oct. 17, 2002, former port executive Jim Darling laid out conditions on which the port commission, at the time, would have allowed the museum to be built on airport property with an annual land lease of $1.

The memorandum states that the commission had “considered and [found] some support” for the concept of such leasing terms for the museum, as long as:

– The port built a facility capable of being turned into a commercial building should the museum discontinue its operations.

– The project received capital dollars from a private foundation, or from state or federal grants.

– The port entered a long-term agreement with a solvent nonprofit organization that would provide operating funds and property management for the museum.

It is not clear, at least in the memorandum, whether the commission would have officially extended an offer to the museum based on those terms.

Daniel Zenk said the document had caused confusion.

“I think there’s some misunderstanding about that $1 per year land lease, which is something we can’t offer,” Zenk said.

Zenk cited Federal Aviation Administration rules that require airports that accept FAA grant money—which the Bellingham International Airport has done—to charge uniform rates for all of its “fixed-base” operators.

Frank Chmelik, the port’s general counsel, echoed that statement in a July 2012 letter written to Zenk and the port’s real estate development director, Shirley McFearin, regarding the port’s ability to lease land to the Heritage museum at a rate of $1 per year.

In the letter, Chmelik cautioned against the port offering such as rate, writing that it could be considered a gift of public funds, which would violate the state constitution.

Chmelik also contended that if the $1-per-year rate was offered, the state Department of Revenue could impose a 12 percent leasehold excise tax on the market value of the property, instead of on the lower nominal rate.

According to a statement on Heritage Flight Museum’s website, the organization had contacted a Seattle attorney who determined the original October 2002 memo from former port executive Jim Darling did not represent a binding agreement to lease property to the museum at the $1 annual rate.

But Heritage maintains that Chmelik’s arguments are open to interpretation and port officials could find ways to offer the nominal rate, if they chose to.

For Greg Anders, the whole episode is a symptom of what he feels is a growing indifference from the Port of Bellingham to non-commercial activity at the airport.

“The general aviation community is kind of getting the short end of the stick,” Anders said.

Daniel Zenk disagreed.

Zenk said the perception that the port is kowtowing to the commercial side of the airport was likely due to the fact that general aviation growth has been flat in recent years, while commercial growth continues to rise.

“Obviously the focus is more on how to handle the growth of the commercial side,” Zenk said.

Contact Evan Marczynski at evan@bbjtoday.com or call 360-647-8805.

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