ROCK FALLS – The Whiteside County Airport Board shut the door to its former longtime manager again in a dispute that’s likely to end up in court.
Mike Dowell, owner of M&M Aviation who was airport manager and fixed-base operator for 21 years before being passed over for new leadership in August, wanted to continue doing business at the airport after his contract ended Sept. 30 by renting four hangars and subleasing office space with Radio Ranch Inc., another company at the facility.
His proposal was to offer a charter service, flight school and aircraft rental at the airport while stationing his new headquarters at 2910 W. Rock Falls Road/U.S. Route 30 in Rock Falls.
The board turned him away Thursday, saying that he didn’t meet the minimum space requirements to conduct business at the airport, and the only way to meet those requirements would be for him to construct his own building.
Total property would need to take up 15,000 square feet with buildings and parking, and the office space requirements vary by service – 800 square feet for flight training, 300 square feet for aircraft rental, etc.
Simply, there’s not enough space at the airport for another FBO.
“It’s up to the board to decide if the minimum requirements have been met,” board President Dave Koster said. “We do not have any available space to lease [to meet the minimum standards]; I think it’s very clear.”
Dowell argued that the board has the authority to waive requirements, and making him build a building at the airport was unreasonable, enough so that the board is going against Federal Aviation Administration rules that say you can’t impose “unreasonable standards or requirements” that prevent competition.
Turning down his business would give new airport manager Darin Heffelfinger, owner of the recently established company Sauk Valley Aviation, exclusive rights to flight training and rental services, he said.
According to an FAA advisory document on exclusive rights at federally obligated airports:
“Existence of an exclusive right at an airport limits the usefulness of the airport and deprives the public of the benefits that flow from competition.”
Jim Timble, a Franklin Grove pilot who has been flying for 53 years and who supports Dowell staying at the airport, told board members they are positioned to lose a lot of business that Dowell has built over the years, and rejecting his proposal will lead to complaints filed with the FAA about exclusive rights.
“I know if you turn him down, complaints are going to be filed, and the complaints are going to have merits,” Timble said. “The one thing that hasn’t happened here is that no one has offered a compromise.”
That’s on top of pending litigation on the matter.
“You are endangering the grand assurances of this airport,” Dowell said. “We’ll see you in court.”
Koster said it looks like the decision will need to be brought to a judge.
Dowell noted that the board waived the requirements for bringing in Heffelfinger, as airport regulations required him to have two aircraft to operate, and the board inked his $98,000 contract with the stipulation that he buy a plane by Oct. 1.
Heffelfinger bought a Cessna 172 Skyhawk and is leasing a second plane.
There’s also Dowell’s argument that the board made up its mind long before the meeting as M&M Aviation was edited out of photos on the airport’s website, whitesidecountyairport.org, and physically removed from the marquee of businesses.
The board denied Dowell’s lease proposal after about 45 minutes of discussion. Board Vice President Jerri Robinson abstained from the vote.
The board agreed to give Dowell until the end of the month to move out and prohibited him from operating his business there in the meantime.
“It does not look like a lease is coming forward, and you need a lease to operate,” Koster said.
Dowell said he paid rent for October and should be able to conduct business, but Koster said they haven’t cashed his check “on advice of counsel.”
Dowell is in talks with the Dixon and Clinton municipal airports about moving his business.