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February 7th, 2007 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Cliff Hangar

Oregon's odd foray into aircraft maintenance is still losing millions.

     
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This hangar in Northeast Portland has cost taxpayers millions since the state took it over.
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
Oregon's unique investment into an aircraft-maintenance facility has finally reversed years of operating losses to bring in more money than it takes to keep open. But hold the applause.

The most recent figures for the former Pacific Aircraft Maintenance Corp. facility in Northeast Portland show it bringing in $73,000 in net operating income in 2004 and $800,000 in 2005.

Even with those two years in the black, the twin 100-foot-tall hangars still cost $1 million more to operate than they earned collectively from 1997 to 2005, according to numbers from the state Treasury. And those operations numbers don't include paying off the original investment and interest—more than $4 million per year.

The goal has always been to find a buyer or tenant, says Kate Richardson, chief of staff for state Treasurer Randall Edwards. The state has hired an aviation consultant, advertised in trade publications, and sent people to aviation conferences.

"Airplanes always need to be maintained, and we've got a facility up and running for that," she wrote in an email. "We're hopeful our continued efforts will bear fruit in a big way."

Keeping the hangars running isn't cheap. Operating expenses run more than $1 million a year: There's round-the-clock security, a full-time building supervisor, monthly heating bills that can top $30,000, taxes, and maintenance.

These costs are offset by revenues from

companies leasing space for aircraft storage, maintenance and painting. Recent tenants have included the Air Force Reserve and Portland Police Bureau's training division. Companies like Flightcraft Inc. store corporate jets for their customers. (State officials wouldn't confirm rumors that director Steven Spielberg stashes a plane there) Other airlines rent space if they need shelter for repairs or to keep the aircraft out of winter weather.

The state got into the air-repair business in the early 1990s, when the Port of Portland issued $50 million in bonds to help a company called Pamcorp start up. The hope: to turn PDX into an aircraft-maintenance mecca adding up to 1,300 jobs. The bonds were backed by the state-employee retirement fund, which hoped to earn $145 million.

But when Pamcorp went bust after fixing just two planes, the state retirement fund was left holding the bag. Fingers pointed, lawsuits flew.

A few months after the company went belly-up, the state bought the facility for $1.7 million. Since then, the state has lost $45 million on the site from 1997 to 2005, if you include debt and interest payments. Even if the state manages to break even on operations, the debt's price tag alone will top $131 million by the time it's paid off in 2022.

Randall Pozdena, managing director of ECONorthwest and former chair of the Oregon Investment Council, says Pamcorp exemplifies why governments should stay out of the start-up business. It would have been much better in the long run to have sold the facility quickly and invested the money during the booming '90s, he says.

Pozdena says government too often supplies "dumb money" for investments that fail to whet private investors' appetites.

"If these things make it through that gauntlet...and nobody else is willing to pick it up, you know it's a bad idea," he says.

 
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