Airport commissioner interviews wrap up

Six candidates are being considered, each with a different skill set to offer.

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Six candidates for two vacant airport commission seats and one that is up for reappointment were interviewed by the Dukes County Commission on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

Each candidate represented a broad range of skills and experience they received over years of involvement in town government, finance, and aviation administration. 

Candidate John Ensor spent eight years on the Anne Arundel County board of elections in Maryland, and he said the experience taught him how to deal with hot and timely issues by engaging directly with the community. 

Ensor said he also worked with AT&T for 37 years in the telecommunications industry. He said he has a good understanding of technology and tech integration. He also worked in profit and loss management for nine years, which he said has made him thrifty and in tune with the workings of revenue and expenditures within budgets.

According to Ensor, the airport has great potential to be a leader in green sustainable energy. 

“I see us growing into the future, but making sure the infrastructure is there to support that growth,” Ensor said. “We need world-class infrastructure to handle peak demands.”

Ensor said he does not advocate for a “build and it will come” mentality. Instead, he suggests the airport should establish the necessary support systems and grow as needed.

And to preserve the Island’s distinctive, idyllic image, Ensor said, the airport should be looked at as not just a place for planes to fly in and out of, but as an enticing destination for people from all around the world. Branding the airport as a green airport would, according to Ensor, encourage more folks to come visit.

Ensor referenced the south-facing territory that would be ideal for a solar field. “We could do so much with that land, and it will greatly reduce expenditure,” Ensor said. “There will be electric planes at some point in the future, and they are going to need to obtain electricity someplace.” Ensor suggested implementing a micro-grid approach, and storing solar energy in batteries to sell electricity to airlines.

Ensor also highlighted the importance of filling stations for water bottles, saying, “Many people here are traveling with reusable bottles, but all they have available to them is disposable plastic ones when they arrive at an airport. They need a place to get cold water.”

After discussing some of the green initiatives Ensor is considering for the airport, he went on to discuss the business park, and how attracting new tenants is key to maintaining the viability of the area. 

“I am a big believer in trying to cut red tape and bring more businesses in. We want to walk new tenants through the process and make it easy for them to pay their rents on time, and have that revenue coming in,” Ensor said.

Candidate Fred Fournier served on the YMCA board for five years, and is the owner and landscaper at Landscope. He also serves as the president and founder of the Airport Business Park tenants association.

Fournier focused much of his time during his interview discussing ways to attract people to the business park by beautifying the area, and making the terminal area more comfortable for travelers and vacationers.

“This is the gateway to the Island, so we need to put effort into making it look welcoming and enticing to the people who come here,” Fournier said.

Commissioner Keith Chatinover asked about any possible conflict of interest between Fournier’s role in the tenants association, and as a tenant, in relation to the airport commission itself. 

Fournier said that as soon as he considered applying for the position, he contacted the state Ethics Commission to have his application verified.

“I have a page and a half of understanding of what I can and cannot do were I to be appointed to this board,” Fournier said. “Being a leaseholder does not affect my ability to serve on the commission.”

If there are issues related directly to Fournier’s business or his role on the tenants association, he said, he could contact someone on the Ethics Commission, and recuse himself if necessary. Fournier also said he was willing to supply a written disclaimer regarding his role on the tenants association, and as a tenant.

In response to the rent increases at the Airport Business Park for tenants, Fournier said he feels the rate increases to be “absolutely outrageous,” and suggested the rent hike may drive people out of the area and make it more difficult to find new businesses as renters.

“If my company can’t afford the rent, and Rosbeck can’t afford the rent, and the VTA can’t afford the rent, then no one will be able to afford it,” Fournier said. “There’s no sugarcoating it.”

Fournier said the employee who handles rental assessments at the airport is using flawed methodology, which needs to be addressed. 

Commissioner John Cahill asked Fournier if he would step down from his position as president of the tenants association should it be necessary, to which he said, “If I need to do that, I would.”

Candidate Bob Zeltzer said he has been a permanent Vineyard resident since 1995, and has been a seasonal resident since the ’70s. 

“I have watched the changes of the Vineyard, and sometimes it is a little startling when you think about what it was like back then,” Zeltzer said.

When Zeltzer was elected as a write-in to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, he said he was tasked with the “very broad charter” of protecting the environment, the economy, the character, and the social fabric of the Island. “We are losing so much of what is so precious to this community,” Zeltzer said.

Zeltzer said change over time is the only way to meet increasing demands placed on the infrastructure we rely on as a seasonal resort community.

“The people the airport brings to the Island spend money. They buy property, they buy real estate, and they benefit the working people here on-Island, and keep the economy moving,” Zeltzer said. 

In response to the rent increase at the business park, Zeltzer asked what percentage of cash flow of each tenant business comes out for rent. “If that’s 20 percent of their overall cash flow, I am going to be really nervous about an increase,” Zeltzer said. “But if that’s a quarter of a percent, I think we make a lot of noise about so little. I’m not sure the rent should be the sole element that keeps the business park viable.”

Richard Wharton Jr., a former naval aviator and finance executive who presently is the director of plant operations and environmental services at Windemere, is the only incumbent of the group. 

Wharton is the chair of the commission’s land use subcommittee, and serves on the personnel and finance subcommittees. He spent a good deal of time telling the commissioners about work he’d done on those subcommittees. 

Wharton described previous airport financial reporting as “reactive,” and recalled surprise budgetary items on reports that undermined “responsible forecasting.”

“So there was a need for a change,” he said, “a change from cash basis on revenue and modified approval, for lack of a better term, on expenses. We’re now in the process of changing to full approval.”

Among the financial reforms he said he’s been part of was bringing aboard a comptroller “to manage the nickels so the dimes would take care of themselves,” as he said his grandmother used to say. 

As for the business park, Wharton said maintaining good communication remains a key strategy of his. “Being able to have open conversations with tenants and the tenants association has been one of my primary focuses,” he said. “I think there had been, historically, a lack of communication, lack of transparency, between airport commissioners and the tenants association with changes as they came due. So we’ve been working very, very hard to work with the tenants association to ensure that they do have a voice at the table. And that they understand that we, as commissioners, are in fact their voice at the table. We might have a playing field defined by the FAA, but making sure that our tenants are represented at the table as we … bring their leases into compliance with FAA regulations [and n]ot putting people under undue stress as they go forward, has really been a large part of what I’ve done.” 

Richard Conrad, an aircraft dealer who once worked in the office of a Connecticut senator, said he’s been coming to the Vineyard since he was 6 years old, and has had a hangar at the airport for roughly three decades. He supported boosting growth at the business park as a way to cut vehicular volume on town roads. 

“The business park is a great way to generate revenue, and smart use of the land can help keep car traffic out of the surrounding towns in the summer,” he said. “And I’ve used quite a bit of the services at the business park. I think it’s the greatest thing going. You don’t have to go into Vineyard Haven. You don’t have to go into Oak Bluffs or Edgartown. Wow, that’s great.” 

Conrad said more earnestness and candor are needed in how the business park is managed. 

“With the business park, it’s really quite a neat thing to be able to lease it out and to develop it … so I just think people on a commission need to understand all aspects of what’s going on here at the airport and be straightforward, transparent, and just tell the truth,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily happened in the past, because I’ve watched and listened to what’s happened here, and you know, it’s quite interesting. “

Conrad said he leases a large hangar at the Westchester County Airport and subleases to aircraft owners who pay “roughly $55 a square foot.”

He said he thinks the airport should construct a large hangar to accommodate large private jets that can’t really be put anywhere during the season. 

“I don’t think it has anything to do with expansion,” he said, “doesn’t grow the airport, but it gives the airport another opportunity to make money for servicing airplanes that come to the Island.”

Geoff Wheeler, a former partner in Ricondo and Associates, which he described as “the largest privately owned aviation consultancy in North America,” and who has worked for a commercial airline and served on numerous airport committees, said the airport isn’t likely to grow, and therefore the focus should be on the quality of service it provides. 

“The FFA categorizes airports as non-hub, small hub, and large hub,” he said. “We’re non-hub, which is the smallest of all the airport categories in the country.” 

He went on to say that won’t change, even if, as he expects, the size of some planes increases. 

“So we’re not going to get much bigger than that. We’re not going to move up a category. We’re going to be a non-hub forever.” 

Wheeler was bullish on making sure airport customers got top-notch service. “I think the vision for the commission should be more to look at the passenger experience here and focus on good service from the entrance roadway,” he said, “through the terminal, and to the air stair doors, and make it as convenient and easy as possible …”

He said whatever management of the business park is devised, it’s going to require careful negotiation with the FAA to affect real change. He advocated making whatever the revised rental scheme at the business park is fair to all the Vineyard towns. 

Dukes County Commissioners will decide whom they appoint to the airport commission on March 4.