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Erickson no longer pursuing IV Airport lease

County officials say a hostile climate in Cave Junction put the kibosh on lease negotiations at the Illinois Valley Airport between Josephine County and Erickson, the largest operator of heavy-lift helicopters in the U.S.

The company, which had been eyeing a move to Cave Junction after losing a training site in White City, informed county officials Monday it was focusing on locations in Prineville and Klamath Falls.

Airport Manager Larry Graves and County Commissioner Cherryl Walker are now blaming the decision on community opposition, which arose out of concerns about noise that allegedly emerged shortly after it was announced that Erickson was negotiating a lease.

Graves even issued a statement late Wednesday complaining the deal was scotched by a "frenzy of fear" about noise coming from a "small but vocal minority in the community."

"I wish to spank all the members of the local community who chased a world-class company out of the Illinois Valley," he said. "The word will soon spread among the many other aviation businesses who are potential tenants at the IV Airport that it is a business-unfriendly location, and they needn't bother coming here."

The county's position was partly backed up by a statement in an email to the county from Erickson President Jeff Roberts in which he complained that area residents had raised "unfounded and uninformed concerns and issues" about the proposed lease.

The company was looking to lease 1.5 acres of land for $8,500 a year. That included 150 hours of training between November and May — once a week for four hours during one day. The trainings would focus on picking up and maneuvering containers using cables, exercises that mimicked the movements the company's Sikorsky S-64 Aircranes would make during wildfire season.

The company would have also installed a helipad that the county would inherit if Erickson ever moved. A helipad is especially handy for heavy helicopters fighting wildfires.

Erickson already operates its helicopters at the IV Airport in the height of fire season, from June 1 to Oct. 31, and it can continue to use the airport whether it has a lease or not.

"Yes, helicopters are noisy but they're no more noisy than fire suppression," Walker said.

Guenter Ambron, who lives one mile from the airport and was one of the most vocal community members to turn out at meetings of the Airport Advisory Committee, said that the community tolerates the noise during fire season because of the trade-off.

"The noise is a bit bothersome but we all understand the value of what's going on — they're helping to suppress fires and save lives," he said. "But what Erickson will be doing isn't fire suppression."

Ambron said his chief concern was that there wasn't enough advance notice of the Erickson deal as an agenda item during those meetings and when the Board of Commissioners would meet in Grants Pass.

Like Graves, Walker said she fears the circumstances of Erickson pulling from negotiations will reach the company's peers. County officials are still smarting over the quick collapse of a development deal at the airport that was touted as having the potential to bring up to 200 jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for drone construction and testing facilities.

"This'll be out in the air industry by the end of the week — don't go to the Illinois Valley," she said.

But in a followup interview with the Daily Courier, Erickson Marketing Director Susan Bladholm said that's not a worry.

"I have a sense that people think we've been run off, and that's just not the case," she said. "This is an ongoing conversation."

She said the Illinois Valley Airport was only one of several sites Erickson was considering for the operation, and that other communities offered better incentives for Erickson.

"The primary driver came down to the financials," she said. "One of the other airports came in with half of the pricing and offered up land."

Reach reporter Eder Campuzano at 541-474-3722 or ecampuzano@thedailycourier.com