BELLINGHAM - Heritage Flight Museum Executive Director Greg Anders said he is looking for a new home for the museum's collection of vintage aircraft because the Port of Bellingham has reneged on an earlier promise of a $1-a-year lease for a new museum building on airport property.
"We have lost our future," Anders said.
A press release issued Friday, Dec. 7, by the museum seemed to indicate that the port had done something to force the museum to leave.
"PORT SQUEEZING FLIGHT MUSEUM OUT," the release's headline said. Then it quoted Anders as saying, "The Port of Bellingham has officially rescinded the favorable land lease terms with which we were attracted to move to Bellingham back in 2001."
Port Aviation Director Dan Zenk expressed surprise at the museum's announcement. Zenk said he had last discussed the museum's future with Anders in August. At that time, he gave Anders a letter from port attorney Frank Chmelik outlining what Chmelik portrayed as legal impediments to offering the museum a piece of airport property for next to nothing.
Museum officials took Chmelik's letter and said they would do their own research and reply, Zenk said. The only reply was the press release accusing the port of squeezing them out.
"The ball's in their court," Zenk said. "I am absolutely shocked and bewildered at their approach."
Anders said he wasn't sure how much longer Heritage Flight Museum would be in Bellingham. He said he has been having preliminary discussions with other airports that have shown interest, and the museum could move out of town as early as spring 2013, although he said that was unlikely.
Zenk said the museum is not a direct port tenant. The museum is housed in a hangar owned by Apogee LLC, a company owned by Greg Anders' father, Bill, the former Apollo astronaut who founded the museum in 1996 before its move to Bellingham five years later.
Apogee has been paying the port $1,485 per month under terms of a five-year lease that has expired and is being renegotiated, Zenk said. Apogee makes a portion of the hangar available to the museum.
Zenk said the Apogee lease payment reflects market rates at the time the lease was signed, and the port expects eventually to negotiate higher payments from Apogee and other tenants as a part of new long-term leases.
Anders agreed there is no dispute with the port over the museum's current site.
"They're not going to boot us out," he said. "It's not like we have to run away."
The problem, he said, is in the future. The present facility in Apogee's hanger is not satisfactory and was supposed to be a temporary home for the vintage warplanes until a permanent structure could be built.
"We've kind of been snookered into doing that for 10 years," Anders said.
On its website, the museum states that port officials repeatedly cited wetland issues in delaying the construction of a new museum.
The museum's press release says the museum decided to move to Bellingham International Airport in 2001 based on a memo from the port's former executive director, Jim Darling, that the press release characterizes as "an offer to provide the necessary land under the terms of a favorable lease that many ports use to attract museums."
But that memo, provided via a link on the museum website, is dated Oct. 17, 2002. The memo also seems to fall short of an "offer" to provide a low-cost lease.
"The (port) commissioners have considered and find some support with the concept of a museum being placed on our property at an annual lease of $1 a year based on the following conditions," the memo says.
The conditions included "an infusion of capital dollars to cover all the cost of construction from an outside source," as well as a commitment from a nonprofit organization with enough cash to cover operating costs.
"These conditions are currently being explored," the memo says.
Asked about the date discrepancy, Anders acknowledged that the port's 2001 commitment on a museum site lease had been verbal, and that the memo issued afterward was less than a firm commitment. He also said the flight museum's move here had been a gradual process, and was still under way in 2002.
But he insisted there had been "a very, very clear expression" of port interest in providing the museum with a low-cost permanent site before the museum made the decision to move here.
"We got him to put it in writing once I got here," Anders said.
He also acknowledged that a Seattle attorney had reviewed Darling's 2002 memo and had said it was not a commitment on the part of the port.
Anders also said he was not impressed by attorney Chmelik's 2012 letter citing legal problems with a $1-a-year lease of airport property. Chmelik said such a lease could be deemed a gift of public funds, barred by the state constitution.
Chmelik's letter also contended that the state Department of Revenue could argue it is entitled to its normal 12 percent leasehold excise tax on the market value of the lease, rather than on the nominal amount the museum wants to pay.
Finally, Chmelik said, the port has accepted Federal Aviation Administration grants to help pay for airport improvements, and one condition of those grants is that lease rates to tenants be uniform and non-discriminatory, while also helping to make the airport "as self-sustaining as possible."
Instead of offering a competing legal opinion, the museum's website provides a review of Chmelik's opinion by David Courtney, a Bellingham businessman who has been active in the effort to get the museum a permanent new home. Courtney's letter argues "there are other reasonable interpretations that would allow the Port of Bellingham to fulfill its previous promises."
Anders said he did not have the money to hire another attorney to check out Chmelik's interpretation of the law and the state constitution, but he contended that Chmelik's interpretation was not the only possible one.
"The rules are vague enough that you can make the rules do whatever you want," Anders said.
He pointed to the port's relationship with Northwest Discovery Project, which operates the Marine Life Center at Squalicum Harbor.
Port spokeswoman Carolyn Casey said the port owns the Marine Life Center and contracts with Northwest Discovery Center to operate it. The port's 2012 budget includes $87,382 for the center, which does not charge admission and covers some of the cost through its own fundraising. It opened in 1992.