Air Fiesta and CAF seeking new home base

BROWNSVILLE — The days of Air Fiesta in Brownsville are over, though there’s a chance it could continue in Cameron County.

The Commemorative Air Force Rio Grande Valley Wing, which has been based at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and staged the air show for the past 26 years, is looking for a new home after being notified that the city will no longer provide free hangar space, maintenance and utilities.

The RGV Wing, established when the CAF moved its headquarters and large fleet of World War II aircraft to Midland during the early 1990s, also maintains a museum at the Brownsville airport that includes several vintage airplanes and memorabilia.

CAF had been planning for years to move its operation — and build a new transportation museum and hangar — from its current location south of the airport terminal to one off Boca Chica Boulevard, where it would have greater visibility.

Earlier this year, the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation awarded the CAF a $75,000 grant toward the project. However, in a Sept. 15 email to RGV Wing officials Chris and David Hughston, Airport Director Bryant Walker noted that the BCIC grant offer wasn’t executed by the city because the CAF doesn’t have a lease with the city as required by the rules.

The original 1991 lease between the CAF and the airport expired in 1996, according to Walker. Meetings with city management and finance personnel and an airport consultant revealed that the city had paid more than $100,000 in utilities and $42,000 for maintenance at the CAF facility during the past five years, with another $28,000 identified as near-term maintenance needs, he said.

Walker noted that, in July, the finance department and city secretary launched a review of city sponsorship of various events, and found that the city spent $23,000 for Air Fiesta 2017 through various channels and more than $29,000 in support services and overtime for the air show.

Meanwhile, a review by airport planners of the CAF’s planned “Brownsville Historic Transportation Museum” concluded that the project would have “no significant impact” on tax revenues, he said. Also, city tax records show no impact from the air show on tax revenues during the past five years, Walker said.

“In all, the city expends over $86,000 annually in cash, equipment, and man hours on the CAF,” according to the email. “Based on these numbers, it is apparent that the airport cannot continue to support the CAF and an alternative should be identified.”

In an interview Tuesday, Walker said the CAF occupies the largest hangar at the airport and that the space could be generating revenue from a paying tenant such as a fixed-base operation servicing general aviation aircraft.

“I’m losing anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000,” he said. “That’s the difference between my bottom line and what I could be making.”

Walker said the CAF was offered the option of coming up with a revenue-generating plan within 30 days or, in lieu of that, 45 days to relocate, though the airport may be able to work with the CAF on the relocation deadline. Also, the CAF was given the option of paying $7,000 per month in rent with no utility subsidy, an option the group declined, and the CAF plans to submit a relocation plan within a week, he said.

Walker, a pilot, said he supports general aviation, the CAF and air shows, and was “devastated” to deliver the bad news. He said the city had requested that all departments, in response to falling tax revenues, find ways to cut expenditures in terms of city sponsorships of events and employee overtime.

“All these other directors have left it me to try and make the airport work,” Walker said. “There’s hard decisions that have to be made that I’m running across. This is just another one. It’s a purely financial decision.”

Hughston, the CAF’s finance officer and Air Fiesta chairman, said the news from Walker wasn’t necessarily a surprise, though it was disappointing all the same.

“We know that he’s under a lot of pressure to try to make the airport profitable,” he said. “We know the city has been looking into the sponsorship of a variety of things around town. They’re kind of taking a look at everything.”

However, Hughston noted that unlike other museums in town, which fall under the purview of the parks and recreation department, the city charges the airport for the CAF’s facility.

“From an accounting standpoint it does look bad, but museums aren’t supposed to be profitable,” he said.

Hughston characterized the situation as a “new chapter in our lives” and said the CAF is negotiating a deal to move operations to the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport.

“It’s fairly promising,” he said. “We’ve just begun the process of talking to them and the other powers-that-be out there. We’re getting positive vibes.”

Hughston said the CAF is already gearing up to relocate and putting together a timeline for the move, noting that the organization is supported solely by volunteers and no paid staff.

“It’s going to take us a little while to get moved out and squared away someplace else,” he said. “We hope to be out in less than six months.”

Hughston said the RGV Wing wants to hold an open house the first weekend in November to give people a chance to tour the Brownsville CAF museum one last time. He made a point of emphasizing the RGV Wing’s gratitude to the city, the airport and the community at large for the support during the past 26 years.

“We understand,” Hughston said. “We’re not bitter about it. We’re not angry about it. We’re just a little disappointed.”