When it comes to the Genesee County Airport, Tim Hens sees himself as a public servant with a private sector mentality.
And that philosophy has worked quite well over the past 20 years, according to the county highway superintendent, as the airport has been upgraded and modernized without a single dollar coming from county property tax revenue.
Hens gave The Batavian a tour of the sprawling facility along East Saile Drive in the Town of Batavia last week, pointing out the various buildings and providing insight into the funding of the operation that currently houses 68 aircraft, including single-engine planes, helicopters and “decent sized corporate jets.”
The county’s plan back in 2001 was to privatize the airport, Hens recalled.
“We were going to put the management of the airport out to bid to see if we can get a company to do it,” he said. “And our bids were out on the street, literally, as 911 happened. And if you remember back to 911, the whole airline industry and aviation industry just crumbled and shut down. It was not a good time to have a bid package out for airport management.”
Hens, who had recently been hired (he’s also the county engineer), said the county did not receive any responses to their request for proposal.
“So, by default, the county stepped in,” he said. “And I proposed that we hire some county employees and manage it. And luckily, it has worked out very, very well. We actually ended up sticking with that process for the last 20 years.”
As a result, Hens is able to use his business management skills to market the facility, assist in the bookkeeping, filing sales tax and supervising maintenance and upkeep.
“It’s like owning your own little business,” he said. “We've got employees to manage, we're selling fuel, we have to look at pricing, we’ve got to look at our competitors. It’s so different than my highway job where it's just fix what we got and plow the snow – and we do plow snow out here, too.”
Ownership of the airport enables the county to control its own destiny, Hens said.
“We have found that we could take in all the revenue, as opposed to paying it out to a management company or a private business to run the airport,” he said. “We were getting the full benefit of the revenue and could control our expenses. Plus, things move much faster – such as expanding the runway and other business decisions.”
The staff at the airport (other than Jeff and Carol Boshart of Boshart Enterprises; see accompanying story) consists of two full-time employees – manager Jason Long and airport attendant Ron Stringham – and a couple of part-timers who fill in during holidays and weekends.
The airport features a two-story main terminal that, along with the main hangar, was built in 2015 as part of a $4.9 million project, Hens said. The county received a grant for $300,000 and the remainder was bonded over 20 years.
The main terminal features a foyer, training rooms, pilot lounge, P&L Air flight school, break rooms and several offices. The main hangar, which is used by Boshart Enterprises, measures 100 by 120 feet with a 30-foot high ceiling.
Located to the west are six corporate hangars – three of which are owned by Genesee County and three that are privately owned – and five T-hangars that were built in 1997, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2020. Those contain 46 separate smaller hangars, with one of them rented by Mercy Flight for its helicopters.
Hens said the facility is part of the county’s transportation and infrastructure operation, and is utilized by numerous local companies, including Milton CAT, Tompkins Financial, National Grid, Western New York Energy in Medina, Six Flags Darien Lake, HP Hood and Lamb Farms.
“It gets way more use than people think,” said Hens, an Air Force veteran who attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado – and has flown jets. “The best thing about it is that zero property taxes are put toward the airport.
“People say they are funding the hobbies of the rich. That’s not true. It’s a self-sustaining, self-paid-for operation. Since 2001, Genesee County has received $32 million in federal and state aid for the airport.”
He said that 95 percent of the funding is covered in most cases.
“The money is going to go somewhere, it might as well come here,” he said, adding that funding for the facility is based entirely on airline user fees through an airport trust fund.
“Our fuel sales and rental fees pay for the airport operation. We are showing an annual surplus of $80,000 to $100,000, and that money goes back exclusively for airport expenses and improvements.”
Hens said the county is planning to develop more of the land at the west end. In September, it applied for a $13 million grant to build a large hangar at the corner of State Street Road. It would be 100 percent funded by New York State through the Upstate Airport Economic Development and Revitalization initiative.
“It’s a ‘If we build it they will come sort of thing.’ We need the hangar for larger jets of corporate site selectors who are representing businesses looking to locate here.”
Genesee County’s ability to run its own airport and turn a profit hasn’t gone unnoticed by officials of other counties, Hens said.
“I think, to this day, we are one of the few airports in upstate New York that make money. We get a lot of calls and I've done presentations as far away as Lake George as to what are you doing at your airport? How come you are successful? So, I think you're seeing more and more municipalities get involved in their airport operations.”
Although the county owns the airport, there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to come in at the main terminal.
“We’ve got a small space carved out on the second floor for a café and sandwich shop with a seating area,” Hens said. “We’re looking for someone to run it.”
Photo at top: The main terminal at the Genesee County Airport on East Saile Drive. Photos by Mike Pettinella.
The main terminal lobby and County Line Service office.
Based aircraft at the Genesee County Airport, including a plane from the Civil Air Patrol.
T-Hangars. Forty-six individual units are rented at the airport.
The main terminal and main hangar were built in 2015.
View from second floor of the main terminal, looking northeast at fuel tanks and runway.