Biggest building at Griffiss gets county attention

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Oneida County legislators are moving closer to taking over legal ownership and responsibility for the largest building at the county-owned Griffiss International Airport in hopes of reining in huge utility costs blamed for keeping it from being converted to commercial use.

At stake is the future of the nearly 400,000-square-foot building 101 and whether it can again be put into use after the failure of three aircraft-maintenance operations housed there.

Built in 1943 when Griffiss was a World War II airfield, building 101 comprises three hangar bays, industrial-shop areas and office space. The two larger bays were enlarged in 2005 to accommodate 747s and other airplanes of similar size. The bays have hoists labeled as capable of holding more than 12 tons.

Since the early 2000s, it’s been owned by 394 Hangar Road Corp., an entity created to take advantage of state economic-development incentives as Oneida County and Mohawk Valley Economic Development Growth Enterprises (EDGE) sought to find paying tenants under the auspices of the Griffiss Local Development Corp., which was set up to oversee conversion of the former air force base to civilian use. Opened as an Army airfield for World War II and named for a New York state military aviator, the base was closed in 1995 as the Cold War wound down.

Occupants since then included Empire Aero Center, which performed maintenance work on commercial aircraft until 2010, and Premiere Aviation, which took over and did similar work until it closed last summer.

An aircraft maintenance company occupied part of it before Empire but lasted only a couple of years.

A portion of the building between the hangars is used by the Air Force research unit known as Rome Lab. That part is owned by the Air Force.

The agreement that set up 394 Hangar included a purchase option for Oneida County after the state benefits ran out. The Aviation Committee on Tuesday approved a resolution exercising the option, then on Wednesday so did the Ways and Means Committee and the full board. A closing on the transaction is expected in a month to several weeks.

County administration officials believe they can more effectively market the building to other aviation-industry tenants if the county has direct control of it. County ownership can also ease replacing the antiquated central-steam heating system blamed for utility costs of around $1 million annually. It is those costs that are in turn blamed for making it hard for aviation-maintenance and plane rehab companies to use the space economically.

Aviation commissioner and airport director Chad Lawrence expressed confidence he can land a tenant or tenants because availability of such large spaces at an aiport with a long runway — more than 11,000 feet — is rare if nonexistent in the Northeast. In addition, the bays also are filled with tools and equipment like ladders, forklifts and trucks, machining equipment, painting sprayers. In addition to the two bays, there’s a painting bay nearly as large, with ventilation apparatus.

The plan is to replace the heating system, which uses steam generated at a central plant for the whole airport complex, with a contemporary system using natural gas. The county is exploring an arrangement in which a contractor plans and makes the improvements, then is paid out of the money saved from more efficient utilities.

On Tuesday, the Board of Legislators’ Airport Committee, joined by sevral other county lawmakers, toured the building then heard a presentation from C&S Companies of Syracuse for an energy performance project. It was the only company that responded to a request for proposals.

C&S’s presentation projected the annual costs of heating building 101 with natural gas at about $311,000, compared to more than $1 million using the present centrally generated steam.

Precise figures can vary widely with options the county might choose, but C&S projected a net savings over 15 years of $98,177 a year. Infrared heating would be used in the hangar bays, as would efficient LED lights, motion sensors to save power in unused areas, and sophisticated control and monitoring software. C&S also proposes installing equipment that would allow tenants to precisely control airflow, which is particularly important in painting airplanes.

The resolution adopted this week authorizes C&S to perform a formal energy audit at no cost to the county. It’s expected to take 30 days. After that, the company will develop a scope, savings and guarantee document, which would lead to a formal contract needing approval by the Board of Legislators.

Lawrence said his goal is to have building 101 retrofitted in time for next winter -- ambitious, he admitted, but do-able.

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