The Omaha police helicopters and their crews could move to Blair under a plan under consideration by the Omaha City Council.
The department’s air support unit is now housed at the privately owned North Omaha Airport, where it’s been for more than 20 years since the ABLE-1 police helicopter program came online. Right now, rent there — at $3,000 a month — is the same as the rent that would be charged in Blair, where the airport is owned by the City of Blair.
So why the need for the move? The Omaha Police Department wants to spend $1.2 million in Blair to renovate a hangar — adding offices and a fire sprinkler system. The North Omaha Airport has offices, but not a sprinkler system or, police say, room for future expansion like what’s offered in Blair. The North Omaha Airport’s owner disagrees.
The police say the move makes sense financially, especially because they’re uncertain about the future of the North Omaha Airport, where the Police Department has only a month-to-month lease, versus a 10-year one, which could be extended even longer, that’s proposed in Blair.
Keith Edquist, owner of the North Omaha Airport, says there’s no reason to be uncertain. He says the airport is staying put and he’s secured a loan to expand.
His attorney, John Green, said in a letter to Mayor Jean Stothert that Edquist and the city agreed to stop negotiating a new hangar lease while the city sought an appraisal to potentially buy the hangar or the entire airport. Edquist said he offered to sell the city the 5,000-square-foot hangar for $350,000, but negotiations didn’t resume, and nothing came of the offer.
Edquist said he doesn’t know why police would want to move because there have been few safety concerns or complaints brought to him during their stay.
“I don’t think they’ve taken everything into consideration,” he said. “I believe that they ought to back off for just a short period of time.”
The North Omaha Airport is on 72nd Street about 10 miles from downtown. It’s north of city limits, but inside the area over which the city has jurisdiction for planning purposes. The Blair Municipal Airport, in Washington County, is between Bennington and Fort Calhoun, or about 18 miles from downtown Omaha. It’s owned by the City of Blair and operated by the Blair Airport Authority.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Kerry Neumann, a deputy chief in Omaha’s department, said the move to Blair is needed, especially because it guarantees stability through a long-term lease. Schmaderer said citizens probably won’t notice a change because their level of service will stay the same — even with the added distance.
Schmaderer said “there’s been some question” about the North Omaha Airport’s future.
“It needs to be operational for the foreseeable future, and unfortunately the North Omaha Airport could not provide that to us,” he said.
Police didn’t elaborate on what has led them to question the future of the North Omaha Airport.
The Omaha City Council will see the new lease agreement between Omaha police and the Blair Airport on the Tuesday council agenda. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 30, with a final vote on Nov 6.
Rod Storm, Blair’s city administrator and manager of the airport, said Blair officials already signed off on the lease agreement and proposed improvements to the hangar that the City of Omaha would pay for.
Edquist, of the North Omaha Airport, said his relationship with the City of Omaha began more than 20 years ago during then-Mayor Hal Daub’s administration. He said he built a 5,000-square-foot building with offices for the city’s air support unit. Edquist said he paid for the project, which he said cost more than $200,000.
Green, Edquist’s attorney, said the city originally paid a lease of $1,280 a month, plus some additional fees like one for using fuel. Edquist only last month upped the lease to $3,000 a month, because he said it was clear police wanted to move to Blair and that’s what they would pay there.
Before that increase, Omaha had been paying roughly $2,000 a month. In all, the city paid the North Omaha Airport $23,355 last year and $24,069 in 2016, according to the City Finance Department.
Under the proposed agreement with Blair, Omaha would pay $36,000 annually, or $3,000 a month, for five years. After that, the lease would increase to $37,200 a year for three years, then grow every three years by $100 a month.
Edquist said that won’t be the only additional cost. He said the city would end up paying more to maintain its fleet because the Blair Airport is about 10 miles north of his airport. Edquist is a pilot himself.
Still, Neumann, the deputy chief, described the cost of the Police Department’s existing lease and the proposed one as comparable. He said they hope to make the move in May.
The proposed lease talks about a $1.2 million remodeling project at Blair, which would be paid for using public facilities bonds from the City of Omaha and is already part of the city’s capital improvement plan. That money would be used to build office space for the officers who work out of the hangar, plus buy maintenance tools and add a fire sprinkler system, Neumann said.
Neumann said the Blair airport is larger than the North Omaha Airport. Blair also gives police the option to expand, if its unit grows in the future, he said.
The hangar would house the department’s fleet of four helicopters. Three of the aircraft are considered ABLE-1 police helicopters. The fourth is used for maintenance and parts. The department has six full-time pilots, plus a part-time one. It also has one mechanic, and is in the process of hiring another.
Neumann said ABLE-1 — an acronym for airborne law enforcement — is an observatory helicopter used daily for incidents like pursuits, shots being fired, barricade situations and reports of missing people.
“They’re our eyes in the sky,” he said of the ABLE-1 helicopters.
Omaha City Council President Ben Gray said that though the initial cost will be more, he thinks it’s a sound decision for the long term. He said the proposed move was well-received by the council’s public safety committee.
“The committee members were satisfied that all the i’s had been dotted, t’s had been crossed and good faith negotiations had went on,” he said. “This was the end result. I’m supportive of what the police want to do.”