Fight to keep Excelsior Springs Airport open continues

In a letter to the Excelsior Springs Standard Newspaper, Sarah Dickerson outlined the progress of the fight to keep the Excelsior Springs Airport open:

As most of you know, Jim and I (Sarah) started, back in May of 2012, the process of leasing the Excelsior Springs Airport facilities with the idea that we would renovate the buildings, assist the city in seeking grant monies to resurface the runway, and return the airport to its former glory as a premier grassroots aviation field. Plans included an airport restaurant open to the public, on-site flight instruction, aircraft maintenance and a small lounge/snack bar. Our initial thoughts were to turn this airport into not only a nationwide fly-in destination attraction for pilots (with the Elms, Inn on Crescent Lake, golf course, theater, and downtown shopping nearby, it would be a significant weekend draw), but also a source of pride for the community with events such as hangar dances, antique airplane and car shows, fly-ins with Young Eagles rides (free flights for children under 17) and free movie nights during the summer. We pictured 3EX as a standard by which all other hobby airports would be measured, and not only a unique attraction drawing national attention to the city, but an economic boost as pilots spent money in town and at the field.

Our early efforts were met with great success; though the lease was still in process, we proceeded with assuming marketing responsibilities for fly-ins at the field. Our first effort, the BBQ Fly-In on the River, had 70 airplanes in attendance (did you know US Representative Sam Graves flew his T-6 Texan into the event?), over 550 meals served to pilots and locals alike, and nearly 100 kids took to the skies on Young Eagles flights. Those are 100 kids that will remember that day for a long time to come, when they look at their certificates and photographs supplied to them after the flight.

After we made numerous requests to present our plan to the City Council, we were finally allowed to present our proposal at a Council work session on August 31. At this session, just prior to our presentation, City Manager David Haugland told the Council that there were to be no questions asked regarding our proposal. How can a City Council make an informed decision without the ability to ask any questions about a proposal? It should be noted that City Councilman Chad Taylor ignored Haugland’s instructions and asked several trivial questions which were met with the comment from another City Council member, “Well, I guess you’ll get your name in the paper again”.

Our proposal eventually stalled at the city council’s hands in the fall, and after an outburst by Councilman Taylor at the October 15 council meeting, we withdrew our proposal immediately. We could not understand how a city could justify treating new business coming into town in such a reprehensible manner, and we were shocked at Taylor’s lack of professionalism and ethics. As we prepared to leave the podium, Councilman Eales asked if he could pose a question to us. City Attorney John McClelland said, “no questions.”  Pardon? Taylor had just been allowed to grill my husband with a barrage of questions varying from what he was doing on a particular date nearly a year ago, to questions about airline service at the airport (clearly demonstrating his lack of understanding of anything to do with the airport – Excelsior Springs is a general aviation airport, with no airline service, this has been made clear), and on and on – probably 8 to 10 equally ridiculous yet antagonistic questions in total. City Attorney McClelland made no attempt to stop him, which was interesting given his order that no questions be asked.

As we left, were asked by Mayor Ambrose Buckman if we would reconsider resubmitting our lease. We were told by a few involved with city government that we would be receiving a letter stating such from the city. Instead, we received a letter from city manager  Haugland that Friday, it simply said, “good luck with your theater.” (Another “in case you don’t know,” Jim and I own Paradise Playhouse Dinner Theatre in downtown Excelsior).

Through the holiday season and thus far this winter, the city manager told the Airport Board that they were “gathering information” for the council and that they planned to “ask the Dickersons back to negotiate a lease after the first of the year”. The Airport Board, at their January  meeting, voted to approve formation of an Antique Aircraft Association chapter at the airport to further help bring life back to the airport and add to the community via 2013 events and fly-ins. This national organization has already began promoting and publicizing this new chapter at the Excelsior Springs Airport, and now? Another black eye for the City of Excelsior Springs, because although Haugland was present, he said nothing about the fact that the city was planning on discussing and voting on whether to keep or close the airport.  Yes, you read that correctly… close the airport. I imagine this Letter to the Editor may be the first you’ve heard of it. Well, it was news to us as well. The citizens of Excelsior Springs were never informed that this was even under consideration. The city’s own Airport Board was not even informed. Yes, the Airport Board sat and voted on a new club at the airport in front of city officials that knew full well that closure was being discussed as an option, yet they said nothing.

How did the city council’s hidden discussions of closure leak out? Councilman Taylor spoke with another politician at an area dinner, who then in turn informed an Airport Board member that Taylor said that closure of the airport was, “in the bag” and that “he would not cater to hobby flyers.”  After digging further, another Airport Board member contacted Councilman Eales and Mayor Buckman, who both confirmed that the council had been discussing a vote to keep or close the airport. Any such discussion was never noted or mentioned in any meeting notice or meeting minutes, which is a clear violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law. Forgoing the Sunshine Law for a moment, why all the secrecy?

Further, a work session and city council meeting to discuss the airport’s future and vote on keeping versus closing the field, respectively, had both tentatively been set –  and no one said a word.  The Airport Board was not notified, and no one knew this was coming. We have now been told that for the work session, City Attorney McClelland has retained a liability consultant (a bill which would also most likely be passed along to taxpayers) to further his stance that the airport should be closed.  The council had to decide to hire this consultant. This is not noted in any meeting minutes or meeting notices/agendas. Also, clearly, someone who is paid to be a “consultant” is going to say whatever the person hiring them wants them to say – they’re getting paid. It was suggested that the council have the MoDOT inspector who conducted the inspection at the Excelsior airport attend a meeting to answer questions about discrepancies that needed to be addressed. She was the person who did the inspection, who better to clear up questions and confusion?  Instead, when it became known that she was positive about the ability to easily remedy these issues and the great potential for the airport, the city chose not to listen to her input. A contractor who conducts airport inspections for the FAA stated the following in a letter to the city and this paper, “I have reviewed the recent inspection report from your FAA Airport Master Record Inspection, the minor issues required to keep a safe and operable airport do not constitute a need for closure. The repairs needed to be safe and operable could probably be completed in less than a week with a small crew, or in a day for temporary signage to close the one taxiway.” So, why does the city attorney feel the need to spend a significant amount of money to hire this consultant? Further, not only have we attempted to explain the MoDOT inspection report to the city council, others have as well – others that have experience in aviation (Jim and I are both longtime pilots with advanced ratings, I’m a flight instructor, we’re both FAA Aviation Safety Counselors).  It is clear there is an agenda at play.

While we are at it, should we discuss the city attorney?  Excelsior Springs, your city attorney was fired in 2009 from the same position in Riverside, Missouri for doing some of the same things he is doing in your hometown. Holding meetings behind closed doors. Not allowing prospective businesses and developers to present to the city council. Not allowing city officials to ask questions during the proposal process. The long-delayed Horizons development project continued to flounder for years under his watch, and five developers including one of Kansas City’s largest, Block and Company, pulled their proposals and moved on.  Furthermore, Riverside encountered soaring legal fees under his tenure as city attorney. With 3,000 residents, their annual legal fees were approaching and exceeding cities 30–times their size. This Riverside information can be read in the Kansas City Business Journal via a simple Google search. Think that this nonsense was just limited to Riverside?  Apparently McClelland’s firm,  Armstrong Teasdale, recently submitted a $300,000 bill for the Vintage project right here in Excelsior.

So, Excelsior Springs, what in the world is going on in your hometown, with your city government? We started the airport project in hopes of revitalizing and restoring a valuable city asset. As many of you know, I grew up in Excelsior and have very strong ties to the city. My husband and I reopened the Paradise Playhouse, have been very active with the Downtown Excelsior Partnership (DEP)and have been involved in negotiations to bring more business to downtown. What started as a simple offer to help the city has led us and others to uncover a level of apparent corruption in city government that has stunned us as well as others as the level of dysfunction begins to unravel. It started with one city council member with no business sense who wanted to get his name in the paper, then led to an attorney billing hours upon unnecessary hours, which led to city officials conducting meetings behind closed doors, and on to city leaders not being forthright with their own city committees about goings-on in the council, and not disclosing information about upcoming meetings and decisions to hire “consultants” to support certain sides of city issues. The airport is just one project in a long list of similar projects that fall victim to countless delays at the cost of losing businesses, and needless spending of your tax dollars. What about the Vintage project?  Movie theater?  Community Center? Community Improvement District?  Hall of Waters renovations? The list goes on and on.

Excelsior Springs, your city needs significant, swift change –  and it needs it now.

For more on this story, see KSHB-41 and FOX 4 news coverage at: