SIERRA VISTA — For years, an actual “mountain” of dirt that sits on about 13 acres of vacant land at the Sierra Vista Municipal Airport has been the obstacle preventing the city from showing aviation-related businesses the potential of opening an operation there.
But soon that dirt — about 140,000 cubic yards — could be removed, giving the city’s Economic Development team the opportunity to prepare the vacant area for development, said Sierra Vista Economic Development Director Tony Boone on Thursday.
“The intent is to remove the dirt so that we can actually get to the land to put building structures and aviation on it,” Boone said as he pointed to the towering mound just beyond the runway.
Once the land is cleared, city officials can begin to market the area for potential aviation-related businesses that would build hangars on the land and open there.
But moving the mound of dirt is not an easy or quick undertaking, Boone said. He believes that within a month and a half, the city could be issuing requests for proposals from companies that would remove the dirt and level the land so it can be readied for development.
Boone said unless the dirt is moved, it would be pointless to market the vacant area. He compared it to selling a house — the owner must make some cosmetic and structural fixes before showing it to potential buyers.
Because the airport is a joint-use facility that is shared with Fort Huachuca — there are only about 25 such airports in the country — Boone said whichever businesses are drawn to the airport should be compatible with the installation and its missions.
“We don’t want to impact their training operations that go on on a daily basis,” Boone said. “So we have to strike a balance.”
Boone could not discus which businesses, if any, the city is trying to woo to the airport.
He also said that marketing efforts are not being embarked on yet because moving the dirt is the priority.
“We spend a lot of focus in the actual moving of the dirt,” Boone said. “We really need to prepare the land to give us the option to go look at other companies.”
“Generally speaking, we’re going to go after large aviation,” Boone added. “We’ve got the 12,001-foot runway and we want to take advantage of that.”
At the moment, the only tenant at the municipal airport is the U.S. Forest Service, Boone said. Once fire season kicks off, the Forest service will bring in the aircraft they use for forest fires.
Meanwhile, the massive dirt mound will be removed, but it will remain at the airport, Boone said.
“If you actually move and have to haul the dirt it will actually increase the cost,” Boone said.
After several months of discussion between the city and garrison officials at the installation’s Libby Army Airfield, it was agreed that the dirt would be moved and kept on post.
‘The intent behind saving the dirt is actually twofold,” Boone said. “One is for Sierra Vista (the costs) and the other for Fort Huachuca. They actually took some of the dirt for a recent fence project.”
Boone explained that “there are always erosion control issues, there’s always work on taxiways and there’s future growth.”
“Within the agreement itself, we leave the dirt inside the post for future municipal projects and future Fort Huachuca projects,” Boone said.
Former Sierra Vista City Councilwoman Gwen Calhoun last year asked Boone if there was a guarantee that businesses could be attracted to the municipal airport once the mountain of dirt was cleared.
“I said no,” Boone said. “But I can almost guarantee you that we’ll never get a business unless we do the next action. We have to show the commitment to the business that we’re preparing.”
Marketing the area before the dirt is moved is premature, Boone said.
“I really want to see dirt being moved; for lack of a better term, I want to see action,” Boone said. “We’re trying to set the table and set the product. We’re trying to take the remaining municipal land and prepare it for the development.”
Normally, businesses could take two to three years before they settle on a spot to move to and grow into, Boone said.
“But once they make the decision they want to be operational in nine to 12 months ... time is money,” Boone said. “The extra step of trying to overcome the dirt or the excess material on the mountain, as we call it, just precludes anyone from looking at it.”