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Cherry Festival, Airport Authority continue debate over airshow

From left: Cherry Festival Air Show Director Christen Smith, aviation attorney Steve Tupper and Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye deliver statements to the press in the National Cherry Festival offices on Union Street.
Michael Livingston
IPR News
From left: Cherry Festival Air Show Director Christen Smith, aviation attorney Steve Tupper and Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye deliver statements to the press in the National Cherry Festival offices on Union Street.

For decades, thousands of people have gathered on the shores of West Grand Traverse Bay to watch the annual air show that’s part of the National Cherry Festival.

But a disagreement between the organizers of the festival and the Northwest Regional Airport Authority (NRAA), which runs Cherry Capital Airport, has caused a snag in this year’s plans.

The debate circles around the NRAA seeking to form a new agreement with the Cherry Festival (NCF) to account for Traverse City’s growing tourism economy.

Officials with both the Cherry Festival and the airport say the annual air show must go on and would like to avoid settling disputes in court - but they have yet to agree on how.

Cherry Capital Airport is now one of Michigan’s fastest growing airports. According to the airport’s 2023 year-end report, passenger counts peaked at 700,699 last year.

NRAA officials are concerned about flights being canceled and delayed while performers like the Blue Angels run drills and perform in area airspace.

Just a few of the terms listed in the draft agreement include rescheduling some of the airshow practices, giving the airport more authority over safety and doing a feasibility study after this year’s show to look at exactly how much the show impacts the local economy and the airport.

But in a press release last week, the Cherry Festival turned to the public with its frustrations.

Executive Director Kat Paye announced that the future of the airshow is, “in peril due to ever-changing and baseless concerns being levied against the NCF by the NRAA.”

NCF staff is concerned about the time changes disrupting the Blue Angels routine. They don’t want the airport to be able to cancel the show at a moments notice should an emergency arise — they say that’s the Federal Aviation Administration’s job.

They've also told media the feasibility study is unnecessary because NCF does its own economic impact study.

At a Tuesday news conference, Cherry Festival Air Show Director Christen Smith said some of the NRAA’s terms have the potential to kill the airshow.

Additionally, festival staff say they don’t actually need an agreement with the airport to organize an airshow.

"Our team will be moving forward with the planning process,” Smith said.

The Cherry Festival’s legal counsel argues that because the Federal Aviation Administration controls the airspace, and because Cherry Capital Airport receives federal grants, the airport is obligated to allow any type of air activity — including air shows.

“I understand that the airport has grown the air carrier service, and nobody at this table is not a fan of that. We think it's great,” aviation attorney Steve Tupper said. “But if you take (federal) money and with it build a thing that is no longer capable of satisfying the obligation to facilitate airshows, then that's not the Cherry Festival's problem to solve.”

Immediately following the press conference Cherry Festival staff attended the regular meeting of the NRAA at Cherry Capital Airport.

During the meeting Karrie Zeits, the airport authority’s attorney, reaffirmed their position: that NCF needs to secure an agreement if the airshow is to receive the necessary flight restrictions from the FAA to prevent planes from flying during practices and performances.

Airport Director Kevin Klein said the airport now averages a flight every five minutes.

Despite the differing legal opinions, there was agreement from each NRAA board member to continue working with NCF toward settling the dispute.

“My recommendation is, pick a day, sit in the room, close the door, and don't leave until you get an agreement,” said board member Doug DeYoung.

But the NRAA said the ball is in the Cherry Festival’s court now to suggest amendments to the draft agreement. Both parties entertained the idea of bringing in a third-party mediator and more FAA representation.

Smith said he’s looking forward to further meetings but “doesn’t want the door to be shut” to the public and media.

“The common person doesn't understand the intricacies of federal aviation regulations, and I don't expect each of the individual boards to do that either,” he said. “So, I look forward to the opportunity to meet with the boards and the right people. But I ask that the right people are there.”

Copyright 2024 Interlochen Public Radio

Michael Livingston reports for IPR from the tip-of-the-mitt – mainly covering Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties.