The Tacoma Narrows Airport has gone through different phases of growth in its 50-year existence. At one point, it was even home to small commercial flights. But in more recent years, the number of flights and takeoffs has decreased dramatically, and many facilities have become dilapidated.
Pierce County, which purchased the airport in 2008 from the City of Tacoma, hopes to turn things around. County officials as well as tenants say the airport has a lot of potential, and they are seeing changes since the county started to renovate facilities more than two years ago.
Recent changes include building improvements and runway rehabilitation.
Almost half of the 150 hangars are county-owned, and for the first couple of years, their occupancy was less than half, said Deb Wallace, the airport and ferry administrator for Pierce County Public Works and Utilities.
Occupancy is now at 75 percent, Wallace said.
“It’s already increasing business because people see it’s a thriving airport,” she said. “People are seeing the improvements and responding.”
The county is not the only one making improvements. The restaurant building, which had been vacant for many months, was renovated after Tacoma-based Harmon Brewing Co. leased it.
The company, which was established in 1997, operates three restaurants in Tacoma along with a microbrewery. In September, owners Pat Nagle and Carole Ford -- both of whom have ties to Gig Harbor -- opened a family-friendly restaurant called The Hub.
“Overall, it’s going better than we hoped,” said Nagle, who added that the first month and a half was very busy, and the weather held up.
To extend outdoor dining to year-round, a yurt was added for the winter months. Nagle hopes to launch summer events, including a concert series and a brew fest. The owners have been working with the county on improvements to the parking lot lighting and better airport signage.
Nagle said there are few places in Gig Harbor that have the western exposure that the airport has, and the views contribute to the atmosphere.
“Word is spreading in the community that this is a good place to fly to,” he said.
“It’s a very special place, and once you arrive, you get the feeling of specialness,” he added.
The Hub’s neighbor, the Tacoma Narrows Flight Center, changed ownership in October. The business, renamed Tacoma Narrows Aviation, is one of two fixed-base operators with jet fueling as its core service.
General Manager Jeff Stillwell said the company plans to modernize its facility, which includes a pilot lounge, and he hopes to add other amenities, such as hangar space.
Stillwell, a commercial pilot for 31 years, used to fly his students from Boeing Field to Tacoma Narrows for training in the 1970s. He said the airport, which is closest to downtown Tacoma, offers much more competitive prices on services like fuel.
“We’re hoping to entice customers from surrounding airports with a new FBO that will give a viable alternative to the more congested airports,” he said.
A master plan process will put all that potential in writing. The plan, which is updated every decade, will identify needs and improvements along with possible new land uses and facilities.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires a master plan in order to fund capital improvements, and it gave the county a grant that covered 90 percent of the master-planning costs.
The plan forecasts the number of takeoffs and landings to increase from the current 48,500 per year (113 per day) to 65,300 (179) within 20 years. It also forecasts an increase in the number of aircraft based at Tacoma Narrows from 132 to 161. Most of the flights are for general aviation, which includes business and corporate flights, law enforcement and medical flights, training and recreational activity.
A master plan advisory committee is accepting public input and ideas for the final phase: preferred alternatives. The county expects to finalize the plan in the next few months, and then it will seek funding for some of the upgrades.
In the meantime, Tacoma Narrows Airport may get a taste of what it’s like to have a whirlwind of activity. As the closest airport to the Chambers Bay Golf Course, which will host the U.S. Open Championship in 2015, it is expected to be inundated with traffic next year.
But Nagle suspects some of the traffic will start to increase this summer as people come to check out the area and prepare for the tournament.
“The U.S. Open will be huge,” he said. “I expect to see something we’ve never seen before.”