Gold Coast Skydivers hope to stay in Lumberton

LUMBERTON — Lumberton Mayor Miriam Holder said she realizes that Leanne Igo, owner of Gold Coast Skydivers, needs to be able to make a living off her weekend business at I.H. Bass Jr. Memorial Airport.

Igo said she can understand the cash-strapped city looking somewhat askance at renewing a contract that had her company paying $100 a year in rent.

That empathy has resulted in what both sides characterized as good-faith, non-contentious negotiations to come up with a long-term pact that each can live with.

“There’s no animosity on this, at all,” Holder said. “It’s like she says, she has to make a living, and I am in no way against that.

“It’s like I’ve told her, ‘I’m not trying to run you out.’ I want her to stay.”

The two sides began talking in earnest earlier this year, as an April expiration date loomed on a five-year agreement between Gold Coast Skydivers and the city.

Holder said the two sides agreed to a memorandum of understanding in February that allowed Gold Coast Skydivers to keep operating during negotiations.

“We want to stay in Lumberton,” Igo said.

Gold Coast Skydivers has been at Lamar County’s only airport since 2007, when Igo’s late husband, Mike, negotiated a deal with then-Mayor Aaron Lott that required the skydivers to build a facility on the city-owned property that would serve as a jump-preparation area.

“My understanding was that it was like a trial, and if everything was good, then there was a (provision) to make it more permanent, basically,” Igo said.

The agreement required Gold Coast Skydivers to sell the facility to the city “at fair market value.” The current negotiations include an appraisal on the building to determine its worth.

Holder said she would like to see the city get at least $1,000 a month from Gold Coast Skydivers.

“What I want is to get revenue for a desperate city,” Holder said. “We need the revenue.”

Igo said she understood the city’s position, but pointed to the feast-or-famine nature of her company’s business.

“We’re a weekend-only business and contingent on the weather,” Igo said. “In the winter, there’s no loads, and I’m eating Ramen noodles. Then, the summer months, you make up for the winter months.”

This past weekend, Igo said Gold Coast Skydivers carried 33 “loads” meaning that the plane took off and landed 68 times – landing upon arrival for the weekend, 33 times up and down with loads of parachutists, departing at weekend’s end.

Engineer Gary Hickman of O’Neal Bond Engineering in Wiggins said the Gold Coast Skydivers’ numbers only would enhance Bass Jr. Memorial’s place in line when it comes to securing federal grant money, “though I have not been required, on a year-to-year basis, to submit air traffic numbers.

“Now, we are required to do a five-year plan, and they’ve used that (Airport Improvement Program) money and have followed that plan over the years.”

In fact, Lumberton’s airport has attracted the AIP grants on a near-annual basis, with the federal money paying 90 percent of the cost on such projects as:

An 8,000-square-foot hangar that houses five privately owned planes.

“I wish we had more room,” airport manager Al Young said. “The hangar is at capacity.”

“Lumberton’s been good stewards of the money available to them,” Hickman said.

According to AirNav.com, which compiles airport data for pilots, I.H. Bass Jr. Memorial averaged 25 “aircraft operations” daily, for the period ending June 8, 2011.

Young said the airport was a plus the city could build on.

“It’s absolutely a phenomenal asset and its potential hasn’t been fully built,” Young said. “It’s just a tremendous asset, in my mind.”

One that both Holder and Igo said they want to exploit to their mutual benefit.

“I’m not making a killing,” Igo said. “I’m not living exorbitantly. I’m paying my bills. But I’m happy with where we’re at, and I want to stay.”

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