MILLVILLE – The Millville Municipal Airport’s historic preservation district may shrink in the near future under pressures to open key areas for development while cutting maintenance costs for the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
Whether the idea becomes a reality relies in part on political finesse, since the city and the authority can’t move alone. The issue draws in the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, which set the boundaries for the district and approved it.
The city and the authority also want the Millville Army Air Field Museum’s support, or at least its neutrality. It was the museum that sought historic status for a portion of the airport in order to support its mission to preserve the airfield’s wartime legacy.
One very visible impact of a downsized historic district boundaries would be the demolition — or, much more unlikely, removal — of the “Q hangar.” The Q hangar is in a fenced off area between the Dallas Airmotive property and a modern hangar last leased by Boeing for helicopter remanufacturing.
The Q hangar was built in the early 1940s when the airfield opened as the nation’s first U.S. Army air defense base. Like its contemporaries, it is in bad shape after 75 years. However, historic district rules prevent demolition of structures within the district that otherwise could be condemned.
The DRBA, which operates the airport under a long-term lease with the city, already has held talks with city officials about the idea.
DRBA spokesman James Salmon said 75 percent of airport properties are in the designated historic area.
“Many of them are in poor condition and require significant resources to maintain — resources that could otherwise be used for other development initiatives,” Salmon said. “We understand and value the need to preserve history, but we also want to unlock development opportunities at Millville.
"Currently, the historic district includes both sides of Peterson Street," he added. "We'd like to see the district reduced with Peterson Street as a border."
Mayor Michael Santiago and City Commissioner Joseph Sooy indicated support for the proposal during a rambling discussion of the situation at the April meeting of the city’s Industrial Commission.
The City Commission has not addressed the issue publicly, yet. It may wait to do so until the Industrial Commission puts itself on the record about the proposal.
“The historic property there is really killing us,” Santiago told Industrial Commission members.
Sooy, likewise, said the hangar “doesn’t make sense economically” and takes up a useful parcel of land.
Santiago said he had just asked a representative of the Governor’s Office for support on the issue. “So, we’ll wait for a response,” he said.
Museum President Chuck Wyble recently said the Q hangar undeniably is “in deplorable” condition.
“The fact that it is still standing has been a mystery to us, frankly,” he said.
Still, Wyble said, museum officials are cautious about being seen taking sides. The museum recognizes that the district places financial and operating burdens on the DRBA and the city.
“We certainly recognize the importance of the historic district,” Wyble said. “We certainly recognize the DRBA being liable and responsible for all these buildings that, for the most part, were temporary buildings. No one expected them to be up 75 years later.
“We are sensitive to the DRBA having the liability and the responsibility of that, and we’ll rely on their prognosis of what to do with that building,” he added. “We don’t have any dog in that fight. We basically officially have to remain neutral because we don’t have any resources to help out with it.”
Wyble also stressed that the museum originally envisioned a much smaller historic district. State officials drew the boundaries.
“The museum, to us, the most historical building and the most important building on the airport is the Green hangar, Number 8,” Wyble said. “We were looking into doing a capital campaign to help restore that building — not so much the Q hangar.”
The Green hangar’s name reflects its original green siding. The hangar, also built during the war, is empty but there is considerable interest in its restoration in the public and private sectors. A study done about nine years ago estimated it would take about $2.3 million to restore it.
“The Green hangar geographically is the most important historical structure that we want to secure,” Wyble said. “The Q hangar is not available to the public. You have to be actually on the tarmac, if you will, which means either a pilot or have permission to be on the grounds.”
Wyble said the Green hangar has gotten attention from Monte Motorsport, a company leasing part of the Dallas Airmotive.
“I’ve actually spoken to one of the people that works there,” Wyble said. “And they are looking into, which is music to the museum’s ears, purchasing or obtaining that Green hangar. And the museum has offered to get involved, only because we may be able to help them move along with the historic restoration and we may be able to apply for grants and that type of thing.”
In early 2004, two barracks and a small hangar were razed and left cleared. That was while the historic district was only a proposal.
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