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Airport eyes $20 million education and training center

Submitted rendering | A proposed flight training center at the Medford airport would include a two-story building with attached hangars on both sides.
Submitted rendering | A proposed flight training center at the Medford airport would include two hangars — one to house airplanes for flight instruction and the other for aircraft used in maintenance training.

A $20 million aviation education and training center may be coming to the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport. Working with a variety of stakeholders, airport administration is pushing the project to address a lack of trained personnel for the flight industry.

“It just kind of came to me when we realized how many deficiencies we had in the aviation industry,” said Jerry Brienza, airport director. “I was talking with some of my colleagues. We are all having problems with cancellations and decreasing airline schedules. We can’t find pilots.”

The pandemic brought early retirements by many pilots, which exacerbated an already tight pilot supply, said Brienza. In addition, other personnel are needed for aircraft maintenance and engineering and airport management.

A stakeholders meeting in late April drew 22 participants from higher education, public schools, charter schools, organizations and businesses, said Brienza.

Southern Oregon University President Rick Bailey, Rogue Community College President Cathy Kemper-Pelle and Klamath Community College President Roberto Gutierrez attended, along with Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion. Three charter schools were represented. A staff member from U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz’s office attended, along with representatives from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. and Medford Chamber of Commerce.

“At the end of the stakeholder meeting, we had a full thumbs-up from people who want to move forward with the concept,” said Brienza. He later met with Bentz and Oregon House District 6 Rep. Kim Wallan about the potential opportunities the center would offer.

Jackson County commissioners, who must approve developments at the airport, are behind the project, said Brienza. Commissioner Dave Dotterrer is the Board of Commissioners liaison to a nine-member Airport Advisory Committee that recommends airport projects.

The center would offer education in such areas as airport management, pilot instruction, engineering and aircraft maintenance. In addition, it may incorporate emergency medical services education.

When Brienza went around to tenants at the airfield to discuss the idea, he learned that Mercy Flights was just finishing up a master plan that called for a regional training center for emergency medical responders.

“They were going down the same path at the same time,” said Brienza. “It might be possible to share the costs.”

In response to a request for comment, Mercy Flights Chief Executive Officer Sheila Clough provided an email statement.

“We were engaged with the airport in the early design of the education center, and we are interested in continuing these discussions. In Mercy Flights’ strategic plan, our vision is to create an education program to increase professional development for employees and others in the EMS and aviation industry,” Clough wrote.

Certifications and degrees likely would be offered through the community colleges, said Brienza. “Community colleges will be kind of the maiden push. They can issue the certificates and degrees we are looking for.”

The center would be located on airport property in the northwest corner of the field. Aircraft would use taxiways for access while vehicle traffic would use Oak Drive off of Table Rock Road. The location is surrounded by a variety of businesses both on and off airport property.

A two-story building is envisioned with attached hangars on both sides. One hangar would house airplanes for flight instruction, and the other would be used for aircraft involved with maintenance training. Classrooms likely would be on the first floor with offices on the second.

A first phase of the project would see construction of taxiways and a ramp for the facility. The airport will receive federal funds for that work, which already was planned as a way to serve existing aircraft hangars in the area. Environmental studies are underway, with construction expected next year. The project cost will be about $4 million.

Phase two would be construction of the facility and infrastructure. The cost has been estimated at $16 million, and funding will probably come from federal economic development programs, said Brienza. The airport will also look at potential state funding.

“We are still putting out feelers to get funding for that building,” said Brienza. “We did make a run to get Connect Oregon money, but we are not far enough along to obtain it.”

If funds are secured, work might start in 2025 after design and engineering is completed along with environmental studies.

Rogue Community College already offers an airframe and power plant mechanic apprentice program in conjunction with Southern Oregon Aviation JATC as part of a state of Oregon program. The course teaches students to maintain and service aircraft.

The apprenticeship agreement combines on-the-job experience and classroom instruction over a period of approximately two and a half years. A minimum of 176 hours of training per year is required, along with 4,812 hours of on-the-job training.

Crater Lake Academy, a charter school in White City, offers high school students a flight instruction option. Jonathan Belden, business and human resources manager with the academy, attended the April session.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.