Future Looks Questionable for Portage Airport in Wisconsin

Pilots are rallying to prevent the closure of the facility not far from Oshkosh.

[Courtesy: EAA chapter 371]

Last week two alderpersons on the Common Council in Portage, Wisconsin, proposed a resolution to facilitate the permanent closure of the city's airport. 

On Thursday night, the council will vote on a resolution, but that doesn’t mean the Portage Municipal Airport (C47) will close, stressed city administrator Michael Bablick.

According to Bablick, the resolution as written directs city staff to contact the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics and the FAA to determine what steps would need to be taken to shut down the 106-acre, city-owned facility and potentially sell the property to a developer. 

Bablick, who has served in his role with the city for just a few months, said  the airport has been a topic of discussion for decades.

Leif Gregerson, president of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 371 based at the airport,  pointed out that what makes the airport property so valuable is its field elevation of 824 feet, which puts the land above the floodplain for the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. 

"There have been grumblings about closure of the airport for years,” Gregorson said. “It is in the city limits, one of the few spots considered prime building location because most of the city is located on wetlands.”

According to Airnav.com, there are 21 single-engine aircraft based at the airport. Most of the traffic is transient, as the airport is a popular destination for cross-country flights.

Gregerson said that during EAA AirVenture, the aviation convention that attracts pilots from all over the world, the airport gets very busy as a popular fuel stop or a divert airport when Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) in Oshkosh is closed because of the air show or field capacity—or when the weather turns sour.

"We're just 50 miles away from Oshkosh," Gregorson said, “which makes the airport very convenient for pilots. Our EAA chapter sells food during that time, so the pilots don't have to walk down the street to the convenience store."

Other EAA activities held year-round include Young Eagles rallies and pancake breakfasts, which Gregerson said are usually well attended.

Airport History

Portage Municipal Airport was privately constructed by the Mael family in the early 1940s. The airport has two runways: 18/36, measuring 3,770 by 60 feet, and 4/22 ( 2,688 by 40). At the time, the property was a flat spot outside of town.

"In 1961 the Mael family donated the airport to the city," said Bablick, adding that it costs the city approximately $100,000 a year to operate the facility, representing about 1.25 percent of its annual budget.

"The city is not anti-airport..."

Portage city administrator Michael Bablick

Over the decades, the city grew to a population of approximately 10,500, and the airport is surrounded by light industry and housing developments. In addition, it is hemmed in by infrastructure.

"Interstate 39 is extraordinarily close to the airport on the north, and on the south end are high tension wires, cutting off the ability to expand the north-south runway," Bablick said.

"The high tension wires shouldn't have been put there," Gregerson said. "The city didn't have the foresight to create ordinances and setbacks to protect the airport. The city did not establish any ordinances that would have protected the airport against encroachment by businesses and residential development or height restrictions.”

As an example, Gregerson, a 20-year pilot, mentioned that at one point the city was using land off the extended centerline of the runway as a dumping ground for brush and weeds cleaned up from different parts of the city. The pile grew so tall that it became a hazard for air traffic, forcing the airport manager to take the issue to public works to get it relocated so it was not situated off the end of the runway.

"The city is not anti-airport," said Bablick, noting the idea of building a new airport in a different location has been discussed since 1965. "When there was a development plan for the airport, [it] noted deficiencies of the current property, which included the inability to extend the runway. People have been saying 'we're 20 years away from a new airport' for 30 years. Twenty years ago, the city purchased farmland to the north to build a new airport, but it didn't work out, and that resulted in bad blood with the FAA."

[Courtesy: EAA chapter 371]

Bablick said the city has never accepted funds from either the state bureau of aeronautics or the FAA for airport improvements, although the airport could benefit from infrastructure enhancements like new pavement. When an airport sponsor accepts state or federal grant funds, it often comes with the caveat that the facility must stay open and  for a specific amount of time, perhaps as long as 20 years, depending on the size of the grant.

The airport is part of the FAA National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems for 2021-2025 as a general aviation facility, even though the city has never accepted funds from the FAA or the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics.

The state bureau referred questions from FLYING to the city of Portage, and the FAA did not respond to queries by press time.

The Pilots React

When the aviation community learned of the resolution to explore the closure process, it was quick to sound the alarm. Portage city hall has been flooded with emails and phone calls urging the council to vote against the resolution to keep the airport open.

The resolution is expected to be heard at the August 24 meeting at the municipal building council chambers, located at 115 West Pleasant Street in Portage. The meeting, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. CDT, will also be broadcast on YouTube at the following link:

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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