Lake Hood keeps providing bang for the buck

  • Lake Hood in Anchorage doesn’t generate a lot of revenue from fees, but packs a big economic punch for the city and state. (Photo/Kris Valencia/The Milepost)

A floatplane slip at Lake Hood Seaplane Base goes for $115 pe month.

A gravel or paved tie-down spot for typical bush planes like a Cessna, Piper or De Havilland rents for $55 a month.

Land leases are likewise kept low: 12 cents per square foot, an increase in 2017 from 9 cents per square foot.

The fees sound like a bargain at the oft-touted “busiest seaplane base in the world.”

“This is a local treasure,” Lake Hood manager Tim Coons said. “Everyone here in Anchorage and all over the state benefit from this seaplane base. We have this amazing venue right here in town. It’s not something you’ll find in another urban location. Other cities do not have this right in their town.”

The fees are modest by any measure of accounting, Coons acknowledged, and don’t generate much revenue for the airport. The seaplane base budget is encompassed under the larger Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport budget.

“Fees don’t generate any vast sums of revenue,” he said. ““We’re here to encourage aviation. Aviation land rates are low. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is aware of these rates and I believe that overall we’re acknowledging general aviation is a necessity in Alaska.”

Fee rates at Lake Hood hadn’t changed since the mid-2000s when this year the floatplane slip rents were raised from $105 to $115 a month. Tie downs were $50, and went up by $5.

The most recent study in 2013 by the McDowell Group for the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. found that Lake Hood activities generated $42 million in economic impact.

The main philosophy at work shaping Lake Hood into the future allows for even more public enjoyment of a rare urban jewel. Maximizing revenue from public use isn’t the goal, said Coons.

Caretaking at the seaplane base supports an Alaskan culture where planes are acknowledged as necessary transportation to get in and out of the state’s vast and nearby roadless wilderness, Coons said.

“The airport fosters a unique lifestyle. Cottage goers aren’t flying out of downtown St. Louis to someplace completely off the grid,” he said. “It’s a lot easier said than done in much of the country. Here, by the time you’re across the (Cook) Inlet, you might as well be in the Yukon. You are off the grid.”

Part of the 20-year master plan involves widening a crowded area on Lakeshore Drive that presently combines airplane taxi, bicycle riders, pedestrians and car traffic. Widening and separating out for the user groups will cost $10 million and is a few years away, Coons said. It involves relocating a parking grid currently used for tie-down planes.

“Eventually, the plan would be to widen the corridor between the strip along Lakeshore Drive to make separate lanes for vehicles, bikes and recreation as well as a taxi for airplanes. Right now they share the same corridor,” Coons said. “That would improve safety and, by the way, make it a nicer and more spread out area for everyone to use.”

Airports have tightened security across the nation many times over since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, of which the seaplane base is a part, was no different. But when it came to putting fences and restrictions around the lake, the decision was to not do it indiscriminately.

“We have security,” Coons said. “We have our own police force right here at the airport as part of Anchorage International Airport.”

Allowing public access to Lake Hood continues pretty much since the days when Lakes Hood and Spenard were joined by a man-made channel in 1939. Swimmers were common then, though lake waters were deemed polluted for a number of years before recent efforts to clean it up. Birds thinking of the place as a sanctuary also were deeply discouraged through wildlife mitigation efforts that included planting pigs on Gull Island in between Spenard and Hood Lakes.

“The pigs ate the seagull eggs, and after a few years, they were effective at convincing the birds this wasn’t an area for them to nest,” Coons said. “Now the pigs are gone and so are the seagulls.”

Other changes ushered the urban lakes into the modern era on a global level.

If you’ve thought summer aviation noise at Lake Hood indicates even more planes are using the world’s busiest seaplane base in recent years, you’d be correct.

Lake Hood’s takeoff and landing numbers, or T&L, steadily increase annually. In 2010, T&L totaled 63,455. That number increased by 14.4 percent in 2016 to 72,620, or nearly 200 per day.

This year’s numbers are on track to meet or surpass last year, Coons said.

On a busy summer day, the seaplane base generates more than 400 operations by float and wheeled aircraft. Given new record tourism numbers pushing past 2 million visitors per year, what’s happening at Lake Hood isn’t surprising.

The lack of land space to grow larger isn’t a big item addressed on the 20-year master plan. The lake holds 330 nooks, crannies, docks or “fingers” at present count for floatplanes, said Coons.

There’s another 450 gravel or paved lots for the outside tie-downs, and more hangar space going in at the airport for private and commercial lease.

“There isn’t much space to build more, but the Airport Master Plan calculates ways to squeeze in more slips in the coming years,” Coons said, indicating places on the map where eddies could be carved deeper in the shore to make room for slips. At most, maybe 30 or 40 slips can be added to the lake, he calculates.

The waitlist holds 230 names, and the management cautions prospective leasers to plan on an 11- to 12-year wait for a slip. An additional 30 to 40 slips won’t make much of a dent, but there are generational changes that occur among the owners of Lake Hood’s plane population.

“They change hands from one owner to another, so not a lot of planes are being added,” Coons said.

Change isn’t the goal so much as managing the public use that continues to attract visitors, residents, small business owners and new lake operations.

“No one’s challenged us yet on the ‘busiest seaplane base in the world status,’” he said. “I don’t see anywhere else that has even approaching what is here at Lake Hood.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

09/20/2017 - 4:56pm