Friday, October 13, 2006

Future of Friedman land up in the air

Express Staff Writer

An airplane makes an approach into Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. With plans in place to build a new airport in southern Blaine County, many residents are wondering what will become of the valuable Friedman land. Photo by David N. Seelig

If and when Friedman Memorial Airport is closed and a new distant replacement airport is opened for business, what happens to the choice 200-plus acre airport nestled in the midst of the booming Hailey-Bellevue area?

Would part of the land be salvaged and operated as a general aviation airport for non-airline aircraft, despite firm resolutions from the city of Hailey and Blaine County that the airport will be closed?

If not, what then would happen to the 102 acres deeded by the pioneer Friedman family for use as an airfield, and the remainder mostly bought with Federal Aviation Administration funds?

Those are but a few of the intriguing questions that public officials as well as Friedman family heirs will eventually confront about the premium acreage, whose value is in the tens of millions of dollars.

"Everybody is talking the talk," said Bill Simons, whose grandfather, Simon Friedman, homesteaded the land as a pioneering sheepherder and grocer in the 1880s. The elder Friedman died in 1926.

But he said no firm plans have been made nor official, binding discussions held with any public officials.

The Friedman family donated the land in 1931 to the city of Hailey for an airport, stipulating it would revert to the family if airport uses were abandoned. Simons' mother, Marion Simons, was a Friedman.

Simons, who operates the upscale Alexander Davis haberdashery in Boise, said his sister, Lou Zimet, who lives in New York, would soon be in town and they might meet with Hailey officials to talk casually about the land's future.

"We want to see the best happen for the city and for ourselves," Simons told the Mountain Express.

Simons has established something of a philanthropic reputation in the Wood River Valley in recent years. An adviser, John Gaeddert, of Hailey, pointed out that Simons recently disposed of several parcels of land totaling more than 100 acres in the Hailey area at "favorable" prices for public use, including land for the proposed new nonprofit Blaine Manor nursing home in Croy Canyon.

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant seems to have had more contact with Simons than other public officials.

"He's committed to some sort of public purpose," such as a park, new library "and other ideas," McBryant said.

She said a "new city hall made sense to him."

She emphasized, however, that no specific agreements or arrangements have been made, and discussions merely were "conversations."

She also is adamant the city would not retain land for a general aviation airport, despite regularly circulating rumors that a group of pilots would try to finance and fund a small airport there. McBryant, who also is vice chair of the airport's governing authority, said the airport has become a "safety issue" in its present location.

One of those usually mentioned as a proponent of a smaller airport is Ed O'Gara, pilot of private jets who divides his time between his Ketchum home and O'Gara Aviation aircraft dealership in Atlanta, Ga.

"It's way too early to discuss what's going to happen," said O'Gara when asked whether general aviation pilots might try to keep some operation open at Friedman. "It isn't clear what the outcome will be" about FAA approval of the proposed new airport in southern Blaine County.

The conventional wisdom is that once closed, Friedman land bought with FAA funds must be sold and proceeds used to finance the new $100 million field. Estimated income from that sale could be more than $40 million.

Two Blaine County commissioners, retiring Commissioner Dennis Wright and Commissioner Tom Bowman, have some ideas about the property's future use.

Although the city of Hailey has jurisdiction, Wright said he believes the land is ideally suited for light-industrial businesses that would create more jobs.

Bowman would like to see a community college with dorms for students who also could find part-time work in the valley. The fiber-optic links available might be the incentive, he said, for a high-tech business park as well.

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