Turbulent times at Grand Junction Regional Airport
As private pilots cheer ouster of airport director Rex Tippetts, backers wonder whether shake-up will ground future gains
A decade ago, the Grand Junction Regional Airport wasn’t the Grand Junction Regional Airport.
It was Walker Field, and it didn’t have a lot of what’s there now.
In those days, there weren’t many ways to fly out of town, unless one had their own plane and pilot’s license. For everyone else in the Grand Valley, commercial flights went only to Denver or Salt Lake City, at least when those flights were active.
That all began to change after 2005, when Rex Tippetts took over the job as director of aviation.
Tippetts may not be universally liked because he has somewhat of an abrasive personality, but few can deny that he’s turned the airport from a sleepy field into a regional hub that has helped boost economic development in the region, his supporters say.
Detractors, however, contend that growth came at the expense of members of the general aviation community, many of whom picked up and left the airport or claim their businesses were harmed by policies and changes pushed through by Tippetts and the Airport Authority board of directors.
In the wake of an FBI investigation into possible financial fraud within the airport administration, Tippetts being fired from the job as a consequence last week and now a civil lawsuit in federal court claiming several improprieties, some people in town are wondering if the good things that happened on Tippetts’ watch will be undone, and whether the federal probe and firing will stymie the airport’s future expansion plans.
“All of us benefit from the fact that this is a regional education, medical, retail and transportation hub,” said Craig Springer, a former Airport Authority board member who served when Tippetts was hired. “This airport is important not just to the people of Mesa County, but to western Colorado. It’s a big deal, a community asset that needs to be treasured. It also needs to be understood.
“Most airports like this are either supported from the taxpayers ... or the county that it resides in, or some agreement between the two,” he added. “This airport has always been, and I pray always will be, self-sustaining. It’s not on the tax rolls, it’s never had to go to the commissioners or the city and ask them for money.”
Springer, Tom LaCroix and Denny Granum are all past or, in the case of Granum, current chairmen of the seven-member Grand Junction Airport Authority Board. Though they did so before broad allegations at the Airport Authority came to light, published in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel, each came to Tippetts’ defense, saying the things he’s accomplished shouldn’t go unnoticed. Each has served years there and watched as prior airport managers did their best to operate the place.
But it wasn’t until Tippetts came on board in December 2005 that a long-term vision for the airport really began to take off, the three men said.
That’s because Tippetts’ experience managing airports in Aspen, Gunnison and Laramie, Wyo., taught him a lot about running the complex operations, and about how to leverage local money to get Federal Aviation Administration grants for capital construction projects, which cover 90 percent of those costs.
Not long after Tippetts started work, Springer realized just what the airport had been missing out on.
“He called me one day and said, ‘I cannot find any record of this airport ever applying for (FAA) discretionary funding. Can you explain that to me?’ ” Springer said of a phone call he got from Tippetts in early 2006. “I said, ‘I will when you tell me what discretionary funding is.’ He knew where those dollars were and how to go about getting them. He’s similar to Tim Foster (president of Colorado Mesa University). These are guys with vision, they know what they want to accomplish, they’re aggressive. Now it’s $45 million later, that’s the amount of capital projects he’s overseen since he’s been here.”
In Tippetts’ time at the airport, he got the main road into the airport realigned and repaved, expanded and repaved the airport parking lot with extra wide parking spaces, changed the name to a regional airport, built a new fueling station for rental cars, oversaw the building of a security fencing project, placed a Subway restaurant franchise inside the terminal and helped attract new non-stop service to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Under his tenure, the airport also saw passenger emplanements increase and rental car revenues nearly double, though those numbers have leveled off since the start of the recent recession.
Gregg Palmer, a former Grand Junction mayor and former member of the Airport Authority board that hired Tippetts, said the board wanted a manager with vision and the ability to grow the airport. Board members, he said, knew what they were getting with their new hire — both the good and the bad.
“We recognized right away that Rex probably wasn’t going to be our (public relations) person. He didn’t have a lot of people skills that someone in his position might have. But what he had was a tremendous understanding of the FAA, the funding mechanisms and how to get additional funding for the airport. In that, he did exemplary.
“But he didn’t win a lot of friends among airport staff and tenants. And that wasn’t necessarily what many on the board had hired him to do. We had other people we felt could be a better public face for the airport.”
The one thing that has dropped dramatically has been the number of total airport operations, which counts all takeoffs and landings. That fell from 79,010 in 2005 to 49,074 last year.
That’s primarily due to a drop in non-commercial general aviation flights — private pilots who fly in and out of the airport each year. Those numbers have dropped dramatically at most commercial airports across the state and nationwide, in part, because it’s become increasingly harder to maintain a pilot’s license and afford to fly smaller planes, Springer, LaCroix and Granum said.
It was on the general aviation side of things that Tippetts received his biggest push-back, with many users and tenants calling for his resignation and a dissolving of the Airport Authority itself.
Members of the Grand Junction Airport Users and Tenants Association have been outspoken over the past several years, criticizing many of the decisions Tippetts made — everything from who gets leases at airport hangars, to fees they have to pay, to a controversial wildlife fence that was extended to be a security fence with highly restrictive gates. As a testament to their displeasure, 51 of those small-engine pilots and business owners penned and compiled letters to the Transportation Security Administration citing the burden the fences placed on their operations.
Some tenants left — most notably the late Dana Brewer, owner of Monument Aircraft Services, who sold the lease on his hangar and moved to Mack Mesa Airport.
“When I’m at my hangar and I have a visitor or passenger call me from outside I suffer the inconvenience of having to drop what I’m doing, lock up, get back in my car and drive back through the gates, turn around, swipe my card and re-enter the general aviation area with my guest following closely behind,” one letter writer, Reed Mitchell, wrote to authorities. “This awkward, time-consuming and ridiculous maneuver goes on all day long by those of us who own hangars or operate airport businesses.”
Small airplane pilot Bill Pitts said he and others for years have felt like a broken record trying to alert local authorities to mismanagement. Like Palmer, Pitts is a former mayor and former member of the airport board.
“We tried to point out different things,” Pitts said. “How can you have a fence and the north side is open and the records are falsified? I can just recall a paragraph in the application that asked if anyone would be affected by the gates and it was checked ‘no.’ Everyone was affected.”
In the wake of the federal probe, several of the association’s leaders have taken an I-told-you-so stance, saying they’ve been calling for years for more detailed and transparent audits of the airport’s financial records and more scrutiny of Tippetts’ decisions.
“When citizens came forward with concerns rich in documentary evidence, the board’s reaction has been to shoot the messenger,” association president Dave Sheppard told the airport board at a meeting last week. “Over the last 2 1/2 years, this board heard hoofbeats, had dozens of citizens tell them about hoofbeats, had documents presented to them that spelled hoofbeats, and (the board) consistently elected to interpret the hoofbeats in the least plausible fashion possible.
“Until this board defines systems and internal controls to prevent the same outcome, the authority will remain dysfunctional and it could very well happen again. Our members want a vital, successful and respected airport. Let’s make sure our corrective actions are comprehensive and complete.”
Palmer said the acrimonious relationship between airport administration and general aviation tenants reflected Tippetts’ lack of interpersonal skills.
“It could have been handled better,” Palmer said. “The board should have been more aware of it and I take some responsibility because I was on the board at the tail end of it.”
Ultimately, Palmer said he believes the board was “trying to do the best for everybody.”
Springer, Granum and La-Croix say the current and past boards have always tried to accommodate the needs of general aviation users at the same time they’ve attempted to boost the commercial side, which brings in far more revenue to the airport and economic benefit to the region.
“If you look at the numbers, it’s easy to ask the question, ‘Do we really need general aviation?’ ” Springer said. “Of a $10 million (annual airport) budget, $134,000 comes from general aviation.”
That’s not to say the Airport Authority intends to turn its back on its general aviation users or tenants, the three men said. Far from it.
Currently, the board is trying to find a way to help one of its major general aviation tenants, West Star Aviation, build an $8 million, 45,500-square-foot paint and maintenance hangar at the airport early next year. That hangar, once built, is expected to create up to 150 permanent jobs with an average salary of $52,000 a year. Those workers would come on top of the 940 who already work in various jobs at the 2,847-acre facility.
To get that done, however, the authority needs to sell bonds to purchase the hangar, which it would lease back to West Star.
But because of the federal investigation, the airport’s lending company is reticent to loan the authority the money it needs to sell the bonds, at least until more is known about what impact that probe will have on the airport’s finances.
While Granum is hopeful all that will get worked out in the end, he’s more hopeful about the FAA’s recent reaching out to the authority and its personnel, specifically the federal agency’s seeming willingness to work with them when it comes to existing and future grant requests.
“To clarify, the FAA is very helpful to airports, but not this helpful,” Airport Authority attorney Mike Morgan told the board last week. “I think they’re going out of their way to help us understand where we are with projects and other matters.”
Though Tippetts now is gone, there are several major projects still in the works, not the least of which is a plan to replace the facility’s half century-old and out-of-FAA-compliance runway. That project is expected to cost about $94 million, and it would be constructed, with the aid of FAA grants, over the next 10 years.
Other, more immediate construction plans call for a new terminal, an administrative building, a new facility for firefighting and other maintenance services, additional taxiways and aprons, separation and extension of the airport’s second runway and an expansion of the size of the airport itself, to make room for even more private companies to locate there.
“We are encouraged that they’re going to be very open and helpful to us,” Granum said of the FAA. “It’s a very, very positive move on their part. It shows there’s a whole new era going on as far as the Grand Junction Regional Airport is concerned.”
Palmer said, before recent specific fraud allegations became publicly known, he would be surprised if Tippetts “did anything overtly illegal” and he believes his time at the airport had “kind of come to a natural conclusion.” He said Tippetts ran a tight ship financially, was accountable to the board, kept it informed and didn’t get out in front of it.
He thinks the board’s firing of Tippetts was “a little bit premature but not unexpected.”
“There were a number of people at the airport and in the community who were not Rex fans and eventually the board felt pressured to make a change,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t unforeseeable.”
Although everyone still is awaiting the outcome of the federal probe, a civil employment lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver last week by former Airport Security Coordinator Donna VanLandingham may shed some light on what’s been going on at the airport.
She claims in her lawsuit that she was fired as retaliation for not going along with what she perceived as fraudulent activity by Tippetts — including deceiving federal authories and local tenants about the perimeter fence, directing contracts to preferred local contractors and family members connected to the Airport Authority board, and purchasing goods for his own personal benefit.
Staff writer Amy Hamilton, Managing Editor Mike Wiggins, and City Editor Duffy Hayes contributed to this report.