Changes at Joseph airport point to increased role in local economy

Ray Potter, fixed base operator of the Joseph State Airport, stands in front of the new card-lock fuel station at the airport. Staff photo by Elane Dickenson

There's new life at the Joseph State Airport these days.

The Oregon Department of Aeronautics (ODA) is in the process of putting finishing touches on a new return taxiway to improve safety conditions at the airport, but many recent improvements are thanks to the personal attention and tenacity of fixed-base operator Ray Potter.

"I'm a cowboy, not a pilot," said Potter, who took on the FBO position, the equivalent of airport manager, three years ago after it had been unfilled for at least 15 years.

At the time he and his wife, Gail, and son, Buck, had been building a bed and breakfast on the edge of Joseph and he drove by the half-century old airport on the Hurricane Creek Highway almost every day. "I kept wondering why no one was doing anything with it," he said.

Private airplanes flew in and out regularly, but there were no services and the place had a ragged, neglected look. Potter at first suggested to his brother, a private pilot who lives in Prosser, Wash., that he take on the airport, and when his brother wasn't interested, decided to apply for the position himself.

"You don't have to be a pilot," said Potter about managing a small airport. "You just have to have some kind of business and interest in doing it."

The main accomplishment Potter can point to is the installation of a card-lock fuel station for planes landing at the airport, something lacking for at least as long as a manager. An underground fuel tank was removed years ago due to Department of Environmental standards, and a local airport committee had been pushing for a long time to have fuel services restored.

Potter took up the battle when he became FBO, dealing not only with the DEQ, State Aeronautics and county land use regulations, but also the City of Enterprise because the airport sits on its watershed.

He finally jumped through all the necessary hoops, including obtaining a bank loan and an economic development grant so the card-lock fuel station could be built. It started pumping fuel in June, and Potter said even though many pilots still aren't aware of the fuel services, he's already seen an increase of the number of air traffic coming into Wallowa County.

"I'm really happy with the fuel sales," said Potter. While he didn't want to disclose exact figures, he said they've been good enough to make a dent in his loan, with a stock of airplane fuel all paid for.

He said that six to 12 airplane have been tied up at the airport almost every day this summer, and expects to see a 25 to 50 percent increase next year, especially as word of the fuel service spreads.

The FBO job is an unpaid position and until Potter started filling plane tanks this year, he derived no income at all from his work at the airport, except perhaps for more customers for the Potters' Strawberry Wilderness Bed and Breakfast, which also features artwork for sale.

"People don't realize the importance of the Joseph airport to the economy of Wallowa County," he said. "That's why I'm doing this, to help the local economy."

The Potters, former ranchers, moved to Wallowa County from Grant County, where they owned land and also the Strawberry Wilderness Art Gallery, partially because they didn't feel the community was working hard enough to combat hard economic times. They feel it's different in Joseph, where they've been involved in such activities as Chief Joseph Days.

One service Potter started providing last summer is a free shuttle rides from the airport, located about two miles west of Joseph to Wallowa Lake, Joseph and other places in the county. "Before they almost had to walk."

Potter said he will keep better data starting next summer, when his computer-literate son, Buck, 23, now a music student at Eastern Oregon University, starts working as the airport attendance.

The Joseph airport was dedicated back in 1946 during the first Chief Joseph Days in Joseph, and has provided the main runway in the county since. More than one local study into building a new airport in the county, ended up concluding that updating the Joseph facility was the best option to improved air service.

Seven years ago the state extended the runway from 3,800 to 5,200 feet, and this summer has been finishing the project with the return taxiway and a fence to enclose the south end of the airport. The taxiway still has to be striped and lighted, as well as undergo a final inspection, before it will be open for use.

Though the idea was rejected years ago, there is a good possibility that because of improved technology instruments for instrument landing may be installed in the future. At present the location of the airport in the Wallowa Mountains pose some landing limitations.

Potter hinted that ODA may have future plans for the Joseph airport "that would put Joseph on the map," but said it is still too early to talk about them.

Though Ray Potter admits that he has never even ridden in a plane taking off or landing at the Joseph airport, he is enthusiastic about the facility.

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