Tenants claim tension at Rapid City Regional Airport

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - Problems between the Rapid City Regional Airport and its Fixed Based Operator (FBO), Westjet Air Center, have reached a boiling point with both sides accusing the other for the issues.

Rapid City Regional Airport, Rapid City, S.D.

In a memorandum obtained by Black Hills Fox outlining many of the complaints made by Westjet, Rapid City Attorney Joel Landeen makes the case that Westjet has created problem after problem in an attempt to remove Executive Director Patrick Dame. Landeen says there is a, “general attitude of hostility emanating from Westjet toward Patrick Dame.”

“Having been unable to get Mr. Dame fired, it is virtually impossible not to reach the conclusion Westjet is now trying to accomplish their goal of removing Mr. Dame indirectly by making his life so miserable he chooses to leave voluntarily,” Landeen writes.

On Friday, Westjet replied to Landeen’s memorandum disputing his interpretation of the facts in each of the complaints.

“I want to be clear - Westjet wants to continue to be positively focused on both our airport and our community,” the statement from Westjet reads.

As the airport’s FBO, Westjet is almost inarguably the airport’s most important tenant. It is responsible for fueling planes, maintenance on aircraft and it controls many of the hangars. Westjet refers to aeronautical tenants, like itself, as the “lifeblood” of every airport.

However, one of the biggest issues between the company and airport is the amount of rent Westjet pays for its 334,390 sq. ft. space. Landeen says it pays only $947.24 month in rent - well below market value (which Landeen says Dame has been trying to adjust since becoming the executive director in 2015).

Westjet argues the lease contract was negotiated with the acknowledgement that the private company would be putting millions of dollars into improving existing infrastructure at the airport. It also points out a certain level of discretion in setting lease rates.

“The South Dakota National Guard, the largest tenant at the airport, is not charged for a ground lease,” Westjet argues.

Among the other issues documented were an alleged spill at the fuel farm in 2016, concerns over the security of the fuel farm in 2018, a Federal Aviation Administration’s safety investigation brought on by a Westjet complaint and a controversy over a Westjet hangar damaged by an airport snow plow. The same hangar was at the crux of another issue in which the city says Westjet violated its lease by beginning demolition operations before official approval was granted. Westjet says it was removing loose tin from the hangar ahead of a forecasted high wind event.

All of these issues point to a tense relationship between Westjet and the airport leadership. However, Westjet alleges, it isn’t the only tenant having landlord issues. Officials with the companies say smaller tenants are coming to them to take up issues with the airport because they are big enough and important enough to have any leverage.

Mayor Steve Allender attempted to get to the bottom of those allegations by ordering a human resources (HR) review of airport culture.

“The report concluded the widespread dissatisfaction among the tenants reported by Westjet and Mrs. Modrick does not appear to be accurate,” Landeen writes.

In our own investigation, we found the HR report did not cover any of the general aviation tenants, which Westjet falls under. The report consisted of a series of interviews with the tenants inside the terminal building.

Black Hills Fox reached out to all of the general aviation and terminal building tenants at the airport. Only two would speak with us on the condition of anonymity. One described their relationship with the airport as “poor” and the other said it was “very bad right now”. That second tenant also told us, they felt more people aren't speaking up out of fear of retaliation.

Dame responded to these allegations by stressing that the airport strives for a positive working relationship with their tenants.

This all comes as the city is investigating Rapid City Councilwoman Lisa Modrick's claim that the airport board President Darren Haar threatened her.

Modrick, who is also employed by Westjet, said the threats came during a private meeting in December. Those claims are disputed by a recording of the conversation prompting Haar to file a formal code of conduct violation.

The full city council is expected to hear that complaint and take action on Tuesday during executive session. Executive session is closed to the public, however, the council will reconvene after the executive session and is expected to make a public statement.