Plans to close Dillingham Airfield back on track, worrying struggling businesses

Updated: Sep. 28, 2020 at 5:20 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lawmakers and community leaders are urging the state to save the Dillingham Airfield.

“There’s jobs here. It’s 130 people ... There’s nearly a dozen businesses. Their life’s investment is on the verge of being eradicated,” said state Sen. Gil Riviere, (D) Haleiwa, Waialua.

The fate of the Mokuleia airport has been in limbo for the past eight years after the state began planning to return the property to the U.S. Army.

In February, the state said it would shutdown the airfield in June but it pushed it back a year. In a letter to tenants this month, the state is now asking business to vacate by June 2021.

“This is the absolute worst time to be shutting down the airfield, which brings in millions of dollars in economic growth," said state Rep. Lauren Matsumoto, (R) Mililani, Mokuleia.

“This is something we need to desperately keep open not just for community but for the entire state.”

Tenants said the gliding and sky dive operations, which attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, won’t be able to relocate.

“This is the only place in the state that we can fly gliders and the only place for the skydiving activities as well," said Rick De Leon, owner of Above & Beyond Hawaii.

According to tenants, the Dillingham Airfield employs about 130 people and generates about $12 million a year in revenues.

But that was before the pandemic shutdown tourism, which crippled Dillingham’s skydiving companies and nearby restaurants and retailers.

Even if tourism returns, lawmakers said the North Shore economy won’t fully recover if the airfield is shutdown.

“At some point, all this is going to end. The pandemic, the lockdown, the restrictions. And tourists will come back," said state Rep. Sean Quinlan, (D) Waialua, Haleiwa.

"But what are they coming back to? Will their favorite activities be available? Will their favorite restaurants still be serving food?”

Along with liability concerns and declining rental income, he state has said it spends about $1 million a year to subsidize the airport’s operations.

But lawmakers said the state doesn’t do enough to collect rents or boost activity here.

“For years, the (Department of Transportation) has not been willing to rent additional hangar spaces, there’s vacant tie-down spaces," said state Sen. Gil Riviere, (D) Haleiwa, Waialua.

“They have driven away rental opportunities.”

Riviere said three different private companies have reached out to him about potentially taking over the operations from the state under a long-term contract.

He said a private company would be more willing to rent out unused hangars or build new ones to expand business.

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