Lunken Airport: Lease? Rebuild? What's ahead for its second century (2024)

What should the city of Cincinnati do with its airport?

Patricia Gallagher NewberryCincinnati Enquirer

Lunken Airport: Lease? Rebuild? What's ahead for its second century (1)

Lunken Airport: Lease? Rebuild? What's ahead for its second century (2)

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At its birth nearly 100 years ago, Cincinnati's Lunken Airport delighted crowds with air shows, attracted celebrity pilots and reigned as the country's largest municipal airport.

But like many centenarians, the city-owned East End facility has been in slow and steady decline since middle age.

Traffic has dipped. Planned fix-ups have stalled. This summer, one of its three runways will close.

Earlier this year a high-profile commission warned the city that Lunken is operating at half its potential with more than $100 million in improvements needed. It recommended the city consider leasing Lunken to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

A Lunken heir, meanwhile, could complicate any plans for a change in management. A forgotten legal document, The Enquirer has found, could force the city to pay the family that originally owned the land.

Despite the challenges, new Lunken manager Jaime Edrosa sees clear skies ahead. “Lunken is a very popular airport,” he said in a recent interview and site tour. “We don’t have to market.”

Even with the specter of a new landlord, Edrosa is focused on what’s just ahead: preserving Lunken's legacy and increasing its revenue. “There’s a lot of demand for growth,” he said.

Lunken story starts with Lunkenheimer

The Lunken story starts with Frederick Lunkenheimer, who left Germany in 1845 and arrived in Cincinnati in 1854. In 1862, he created Cincinnati Brass Works to make parts for steamboats and military equipment. In 1889, just weeks after renaming the company Lunkenheimer Valve Co., he died at 63, leaving son Edmund in charge.

A few years later, in 1892, Edmund H. Lunkenheimer went to court to drop the “heimer” (too long and cumbersome, according to news coverage of the time) and, by 1908, built a hulking and now-vacant factory in South Fairmount to make valves.

Within two decades, as two brothers from Dayton turned the world on to the possibility of flight, Lunken would also launch the airport that carried on the family name.

According to historical accounts, Edmund H. Lunken bought some 500 acres in a part of Cincinnati then known as Turkey Bottoms at the request of son Eshelby, a pilot. Used as an airfield starting in 1924, the city turned the site into Lunken Airport by 1930 and has run it ever since.

Four generations of Lunkens had a say along the way: Edmund H. and Eshelby, followed by Eshelby’s son, Edmund P., and his son Edmund B., now 83 and residing in Indian Hill. (More from him below.)

The family legacy lives on in Walnut Hills, too, where Frederick Lunkenheimer built a 20-room mansion in 1883. Now the home of a 401K management firm called Pension Corp. of America, a tower in the Victorian structure pays permanent tribute to its first owner, with the word Ingelheim, his German hometown, carved into the stone.

Lunken downturn mirrors industry

Lunken Airport was mostly flying high for the first half of its life.

Its 1930 dedication drew 25,000 Cincinnatians. The opening of its terminal, in 1938, drew 75,000. Famed aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart made frequent stops.

By World War II, Lunken was charting about 132,000 yearly “operations” – defined as a landing or takeoff – according to a history book titled “Images of Aviation: Lunken Airfield.”

Despite losing most commercial airlines to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in the 1940s, Lunken traffic continued to grow through the 1970s, airport data shows. In 1976, annual operations hit a high of about 223,000.

A long, slow downturn followed, with Lunken missing goals in its 20-year master plan of 2004 and since.

  • The master plan predicted close to 188,000 annual operations by 2022. The airport reported 115,200.
  • The master plan forecast 349 Lunken-stationed aircraft by 2022. It has 184 today.
  • The plan called for millions of dollars in improvements, including nearly $7 million for two taxiways and another $2 million for hangars that were never built.
  • In 2020, Lunken’s popular Sky Galley restaurant closed. In 2022, the airport shut its terminal building to prepare for a renovation that was supposed to be done last year.

Lunken’s fortunes mirrored the industry, according to the 2004 report. Aircraft manufacturers slowed production as they faced increased liability from aging planes. Aircraft ownership slipped with the rising cost of planes, fuel and insurance. The then-new Transportation Security Administration, created in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, was expected to impose restrictions that would dampen traffic.

‘I knew I wanted to be in aviation’

As a child in New York City, Jaime Edrosa plane-watched at John F. Kennedy International Airport and flew to Spain to spend summers with his grandparents. “I knew I wanted to be in aviation” from a young age, the now-48-year-old Lunken manager said.

He came to Cincinnati in October 2021 after 17 years at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada and other jobs in aviation and education. He spent a year at Amazon Air’s CVG hub, then a year at CVG itself before starting at Lunken last Oct. 1.

He’s launched or moved forward on several fronts since then:

  • On July 11, he will officially close 3L 21R, a 3,800-foot runway as old as Lunken. The city last year OK’d plans to apply for up for to $1.4 million in federal funding – and add up to $140,000 more in city and state dollars – to take the runway out of commission. Edrosa will be seeking four new Lunken tenants to take that space, aiming to open bids this year. Cincinnati-based grocery giant Kroger Co. is among the corporate users who want more room, he confirmed.
  • In January, he contracted with Procter & Gamble Co., the Cincinnati consumer goods giant, for space in its Lunken hangar for a temporary office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The service is already attracting more international traffic.
  • He’s planning for a permanent customs office by 2027 when Lunken's arrangement with P&G ends. He hopes to use a hangar that department store owner Macy’s Inc. will evacuate for that, plus airport staff and equipment storage.
  • He’s aiming to remove one of the oldest hangars on Lunken property – now used for snow plows and other equipment – since it sits in what is called the “runway safety area” of one of the two other runways.
  • He’s looking for ways to increase overall revenue, at $2.5 million last year. He’ll soon hire a new contractor to track and collect various fees, review tenant rents with a new on-staff real estate expert and deliver a strategic business plan to city hall.
  • He's expecting $1.4 million from the city, included in the most recent version of the FY25 budget, with $200,000 to pay consultants for work on the strategic plan and new customs site and $1 million for facility upgrades the consultants recommend.

Perhaps of highest interest, he’s staying abreast of plans for the terminal. Fans of the airport and its closed Sky Galley tell him: “‘I so much enjoyed going to the restaurant at Lunken.’ I hear this story over and over again.”

Covington’s vR Group remains committed to renovating the terminal, with hotel rooms, and an upscale restaurant and bar, city officials said. The developer is currently redesigning the project, now suggesting 35 hotel rooms instead of 55, because the Federal Aviation Administration said its first design was too tall.

Guy van Rooyen of vR Group called his firm’s final plans for the historic landmark “a work in progress” in a statement but declined an interview request. “We have no details to release at this time,” he said.

Lunken on Lunken: Heirs owed a say in airport's future

Lunken advisory board members Anne Sesler and Elissa Pogue said Edrosa engages with board members, answering their questions instead of just reporting news to them. “The conversations are vibrant,” said Pogue, who is related to the Lunkens because an uncle married one.

Notably, Edrosa has even been willing to engage with the Cincinnati Aviation Historical Society, which has a few beefs with Lunken Airport.

Chief among them: The Lunken family did not donate 504 acres to the city of Cincinnati to launch the airport – asserted, in error, on the city's website, an airport plaque and in dozens of news stories over the decades.

"This is not true," Society Board President Cliff Wartman told The Enquirer when it last repeated the error in April. "Mr. E.B. Lunken will confirm that."

The Lunken descendant provided that confirmation in an interview, explaining that his family leased its land to the city for 99 years, and the city added 870 acres of its own to establish the airport.

A copy of the lease, filed in the Hamilton County Recorder’s office, spells out the terms.The city must use the land for an airportand stick with the Lunken name. The city must adhere to the terms of the lease through Nov. 25, 2025. And the city must get written consent from Lunken heirs to “sublet said premises.”

Edmund Backus Lunken, great-great grandson of the Lunkenheimer who created the family’s wealth and great-grandson of the Lunken who drafted the lease, does not believe the city has ever sought his family’sapproval for any sublease agreements at Lunken.

His father stayed involved with aviation, launching Midwest Airways at Lunken in 1963 and running Lockheeds to Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and, during summers, Michigan destinations. E.B. Lunken worked for his dad during Midwest’s four-year life. “If there was dirty work, I got to do it. ‘Clean this. Paint that,’ ” he said.

Given that legacy and the lease, Lunken thinks he should have a say if the city moves forward on the idea of leasing the airport to CVG. “I’d probably take it up with a few of my relatives,” he said.

Would they want compensation? “I would think that would be appropriate,” he said.

Wartman, a retired realestate negotiator for Conrail, was more direct. “The Lunken family would be entitled to close to 20% of the lease income,” he said. If a deal comes to pass, CVG “should be using their expertise and some of their money” to benefit Lunken Airport, he added.

At a minimum, Wartman hopes Lunken will invite the aviation society back to the terminal after it’s renovated. The group was evicted in 2022 when the building closed. “Everything’s in storage,” Wartman said.

Will ‘experts at CVG’ take over?

City officials did not know Mayor Aftab Pureval’s Futures Commission would suggest leasing Lunken to CVG as one of its ideas for shoring up city finances.

A commission consultant asked the city for information about Lunken in June 2023 and the city provided it, Bob Vickrey, deputy director of the city's transportation department, told the Lunken board this spring. That's where the conversation ended. "They did not get back in touch with us,” Vickrey said of the commission.

When the commission released its report April 11, it said Lunken needs $105 million in fixes, and is only currently worth between $8 million and $27 million.

Leasing Lunken to CVG would get the city out of a business not essential to most city residents and into the hands of “the experts at CVG,” the commission report said.

Since then, Pureval has declined comment on the commission’s specific recommendations and asked the city manager for a review of them by the end of June.

At CVG, CEO Candace McGraw, a commission member, released a brief statement about the Lunken recommendation. “Airports are unique businesses that should be viewed as economic growth drivers for a region,” she said. CVG welcomes continued conversation with the city “about the role that Lunken could play in the aviation ecosystem of our region.”

For his part, Edrosa said he stands “ready, willing and able to support” whatever the city decides on the CVG question.

And the 99-year lease with the Lunken family? It’s titled “perpetual,” with a clause that calls it “renewable forever.”

“Our intention is to renew,” Edrosa said.

Lunken Airport: Lease? Rebuild? What's ahead for its second century (2024)
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