The fate of Dillingham Airfield is still in the air

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — A popular North Shore operation is facing a forced shut down once again.

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The Hawaii Department of Transportation has been trying to get out of its lease at Dillingham Airfield since early 2020.

The state recently sent out a letter, asking tenants to start the eviction process.

However, those who support the airfield, including North Shore leaders, said that the airfield should be receiving economic support during the pandemic, and not being forced to close.

Dillingham Airfield has been an economic driver for the North Shore, bringing in about $12 million a year in skydiving and gliding tours.

“Losing this airfield would be a huge negative impact on our economy, which is already suffering because of COVID,” explained North Shore Neighborhood Board Chair Kathleen Pahinui.

“This is the absolute worst time to shut down the airfield with an area that brings in millions of dollars in economic growth with thousands of jobs,” explained Rep. Lauren Matsumoto (R) Schofield, Mokuleia, Mililani. “This is something we need to keep open, not just for this community but for the entire state.”

There are 11 businesses at Dillingham, or Kawaihapai Airfield, and it employs about 130 people.

In March, about two dozen legislators wrote a letter to the DOT and asked to extend its termination of the lease this summer due to COVID-19. The DOT agreed and placed the impending closure date on June 30, 2021.

“We worked and negotiated with DOT to extend the timeline for an entire year for the exact purpose to have a legislative session to vet every single option possible and it’s imperative we have that time to be able to keep the airfield open,” Rep. Matsumoto said.

“Just this last week, they sent out a letter saying they intend to begin the closure of the airfield starting in January 2021,” explained Ben Devine, who is part of the Save Dillingham Airfield group. “That’s going to include red tagging structures, and having meetings with tenants to restore their properties to pre-lease conditions.”

He said that tenants thought they had more time to work on finding a solution with DOT.

In the letter, the DOT listed other airports that the tenants could run operations from, but the tenants said that it’s not possible.

“Skydiving operations cannot move to Honolulu International Airport or Kalaeloa because you’re asking me to land a parachute next to a jumbo jet, and that’s not feasible,” Devine said.

“The glider operators are tied to the lift, that happens on the ridge, to ask them to move from the ridge is asking them to give up on their passion of flight,” he continued.

He said that the DOT also offered parking space at airports on other islands.

“It’s ridiculous that they would tell you there’s an open parking space for you on another island when you live and work on Oahu,” Devine continued.

The tenants said that their goal is to make the airfield even better than it is now, with plans of adding more businesses and operations in the future.

“This is the only place in the state right now where we can fly gliders, and it’s the only place for the skydiving activities as well,” said Dr. Richard De Leon, who is an aircraft owner at Dillingham Airfield. “As I look forward, I envision taking this to the next level of proper management where we have other activities, eco-friendly activities, outdoor activities, hiking, access to the ocean, food resources, and a play area for kids and families.”

“We can get on the map and have a profound impact on the island as an incredible visitor industry boost and a resource for our local people,” he continued.

State Senator Gil Riviere (D) Kaneohe, Haleiwa, Waialua said that there are three companies that are interested in managing the military-owned airfield under a long-term contract.

“We have an alternative vision for this and that alternative vision is to allow a management company to come in, under contract, to operate this airfield,” he said.

“We’re trying to facilitate the discussions with the state. I believe we can solve all the underlying concerns and make this into a really effective and successful airfield, and I’m committed to making that happen with everyone here,” Sen. Rivere said.

The State of Hawaii has the lease at Dillingham Airfield until 2024.

“At least we should continue the three years of that lease and that time is perfect for transitioning to the new management authority that I think is very reasonable and can happen,” Sen. Rivere continued.

However, the U.S. Army stated to Sen. Riviere that they’d like to work with a state or county agency.

Rep. Sean Quinlan (D) Waialua, Haleiwa, Kaaawa said that keeping the airfield open is imperative for the long-term as the North Shore grapples with saving its businesses due to COVID-19.

“At some point, all of this is going to end–the pandemic, the lockdown, the restrictions, and tourists will come back, but what will they come back to?” He asked during the press conference held at the airfield on Sunday, Sept. 27.

“Will their favorite activities still be available, will their favorite restaurant still be serving food, will their favorite hotel still be open for business? And I hope the answer is yes, but right now it’s incumbent upon our government to work with the private sector to ensure that the answer to all of those questions is yes,” he continued.

The DOT stated that its losing $1 million in operational costs each year, which is another reason why the state wants to hand the lease back over to the army.

“COVID has created a great deal of hardship for operators here on site,” Devine explained. “But we are still operating, we are still in business and if this airfield is to close then you’re shuttering businesses unnecessarily.”

KHON2 reached out to DOT for a statement, but did not hear back.

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