A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

Steve Rossiter, EAA 554430, President EAA 517

Western Montana’s EAA Chapter 517 has moved its headquarters from Stevensville, Montana, back to Missoula. The chapter was originally chartered in Missoula, but to better serve its membership base, the chapter has been conducting alternating meetings in both Missoula and Stevensville, Montana, thus the “two Cities” reference. How did this rather unusual set of circumstances develop?

When I joined Chapter 517 in 2000, the major “wish list” item for the members was a chapter-owned hangar headquarters. There were many discussions with the Missoula International Airport (MSO) management about an EAA 517 hangar. At the time, building a hangar at MSO meant meeting an extremely high commercial building standard, it was cost prohibitive for the chapter. During that time, MSO management was heavily involved in a process to expand and grow air carrier operations and as a result, the needs of general aviation and organizations such as EAA were a low priority in the overall scheme of things. It had been decades since new, non-FBO, general aviation facilities had been built at MSO. Unfortunately for MSO, general aviation activities began moving elsewhere and have just now started to return.

As a result of this less than supportive attitude at MSO, in 2001, EAA Chapter 517 started looking elsewhere for a location to establish a facility that would support chapter functions. In 2002 we located a hangar for sale at the Stevensville Airport (32S). As fortune would have it, this hangar was owned by an EAA member who was not a chapter member. Our good fortune continued when the seller was extremely cooperative in structuring a purchase agreement that easily allowed the chapter to qualify for a loan from a local bank for the first mortgage.

The Stevensville hangar was a 65-by-48-foot building with a 50-by-48-foot hangar bay and a 15-by-48-foot office, restroom, and shop area. Once again, fortune shined on us in that we had running water and a septic tank for the bathroom, one of the very few hangars so equipped at Stevensville. Through the talents of our members, we expanded electrical outlets, completed insulation, installed sheetrock, and painted, resulting in a very nice heated hangar for our then-new headquarters. In addition, the shop area was converted to a kitchen to support chapter meal functions.

To make the monthly mortgage payments and pay for utilities, the chapter rented hangar space to chapter members at a below market rate for the Stevensville airport and had an aggressive schedule of monthly pancake breakfasts open to the public. Believe it or not, this worked and we had no trouble meeting our monthly obligations. As a matter of fact, once we established our hangar, our chapter membership increased by a factor of three.

In the first five years of the 21st century, the Missoula EAA chapter was providing chapter membership opportunities for a very large geographic area. This area reached as far as 70 miles in nearly every direction. Once we had the Stevensville hangar remodeled we began alternating our meetings between Stevensville and Missoula to better accommodate our potential membership base. This helped a bit with the travel burden for some members. We have members that come to the Missoula meetings, some who come to the Stevensville meetings, and a core group that attend meetings in both locations.

In 2003, in an effort to accelerate the payoff of our hangar mortgage, we held our first annual Celebration of Powered Flight Dinner on December 17 in honor of the Wright brothers’ first flight. This event was open to the public as a fundraiser and between the dinner, donations, and a silent auction, we did indeed generate revenue to pay down our mortgage. More than 150 people joined us for this inaugural event. We held our 14th annual Celebration of Powered Flight Dinner on December 17, 2016, as a joint event with the Five Valleys Hangar of the Montana Pilots Association.

In 2006, as a Montana and federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, EAA Chapter 517 was able to take advantage of a Montana state program where we were able to create a specialty vehicle license plate that would be sold on our behalf through the vehicle licensing authority. As a resultsome of the fees collected are designated for distribution to the chapter. The income thus generated allowed us to establish several annual scholarships for aspiring pilots and other aviation professionals and to pay our hangar mortgage, in full, 10 years early.

In recent years a transition has happened at the Missoula International Airport. We now have a very general aviation-friendly airport authority, airport director, and management team. The local general aviation community has been invited by the Missoula Airport Authority to assist in the revitalization of general aviation at MSO. Although expansion of air carrier operations continues, growth of general aviation is now a priority as well at MSO. The current management team understands that general aviation is a basic and vital element of any successful airport operation. As a result of the healthy relationship between MSO, EAA Chapter 517, and the rest of the general aviation community, we now host the Annual Montana Sate Aviation Conference about every third year.

To this end, EAA Chapter 517 is relocating its headquarters to a unit in the newest general aviation hangar condominium complex on the new MSO east ramp. This complex will provide EAA 517 with a 60-by-60-foot heated hangar bay, approximately 250 square foot office and a very large shared common area with a kitchen, restrooms, lounge, and reception area. There is also a third floor observation cab and deck from which the main MSO runway is visible for the full length. This complex is expected to become the center for general aviation for MSO and provide EAA Chapter 517 the opportunity to expand its offerings to both old and new members.

EAA Chapter 517 now has a home in two cities. Meetings will continue in both cities with meetings in the odd months in Missoula and meetings in even months in Stevensville (except December). Other Montana and Northern Idaho EAA chapters can watch for our schedule of Saturday social events at our new MSO Headquarters. We probably won’t have $100 hamburgers, but we might be able to generate $100 coffee and donuts. What a deal!

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