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Competition for customers could return to Denton Enterprise Airport

An agreement that could bring Denton Enterprise Airport its second “service station” got pulled from the City Council consent agenda at the last minute this week.

City staff said the sublease will come back in early June along with other documents that are part of the deal, in order to be fully transparent about the agreements the city is making. But the owners of the current service station — known in airport parlance as a fixed-base operator — worry that the city is playing favorites.

Mike Sykes, CEO with U.S. Aviation Academy and U.S. Jet Center, said he reached out to individual council members about his concerns. Currently, his company, U.S. Jet Center, is the only service station at the airport. Sykes said he knows that competition is part of business, but the city appears to be bending over backward to create the competition.

“They need to stick to the rules,” Sykes said.

U.S. Jet has been the only service center at the airport since Business Air shuttered in 2017. Sykes and U.S. Aviation bought out Business Air back then.

Scott Gray, the airport manager, said U.S. Aviation is the airport’s largest tenant, owning most of the airport’s hangar space and nearly all the “apron,” the part of the airport where planes can motor around and park.

In addition, about 60% of the airport traffic is local, with nearly all that local traffic generated by flight academy students. Gray said that percentage will be even higher in April, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Denton Enterprise Airport is also part of the state’s transportation infrastructure, and subject to rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Airport and city officials spent months drafting new policies and procedures to make sure the airport stays in compliance with those federal rules, Gray said.

The new rules and procedures got adopted in February — and then the pandemic hit. Work slowed on implementing the new procedures, including processing all the business permits for the 80 or so leaseholders at the airport, Gray said.

Sykes agreed that when his company first applied to open U.S. Jet Center, Denton’s standards for fixed-base operators were looser.

But his service center meets the new standards, he added. For example, the company’s fueling practices meet federal standards for safety and reliability. The company meets other airport requirements for having enough room to park and service aircraft, along with providing an air-conditioned lobby and public restrooms for travelers.

DRC file photo 

The entrance to Denton Enterprise Airport.

It took his company a long time to meet the requirements and open the center, Sykes added. His company invested about $3.5 million over the past several years at Denton Enterprise Airport, he said. Much of that went into the flight school. But, about 17% of the company’s revenue, and 14 of its 18 buildings at the airport make up the service center, are U.S. Jet.

He questioned whether a new airport tenant could set up a second service center in only a few months, at least not without concessions from the city against those new rules. He also questioned whether the new tenant was being charged the fair market value for the lease, since the going rate appeared to be lower than what he and others have paid for their leases.

Gray said the FAA won’t allow the city to deny another tenant the opportunity to open a service center and its lease rates are based on professional appraisals. He also said that the agreement the staff pulled from the council agenda this week was a sublease negotiated between two private parties. The city has no say over such agreements — except that the city had a right to be notified of the agreement before it could be finalized.

The postponement allows the city staff to put everything together at once and be more clear and transparent about all the terms of the deal, Gray said.

But Gray agreed that the new lease also cuts off the last, large developable parcel at the airport, another of Sykes’ concerns about the deal.

“For the short term, yes,” Gray said, adding, “Until we can conduct a work session with the city council on tenant development.”

Such an arrangement could limit city’s options and ultimately cost the city more money in the long run, Sykes said.

City spokesman Ryan Adams said the city has followed the new processes and policies and acted on guidance from the FAA in its negotiations.

Adams and Gray said both the sublease agreement that was pulled this week and the other agreements to finalize the deal with the new tenant are expected to be back before the City Council on June 2.

A walk to remember: Ryan High School students' graduation looked a little different than years past

No cars ripped across the Texas Motor Speedway Thursday evening, replaced instead by snaking lines of red-robed teens in their final moments as high schoolers.

Ryan High School’s graduation ceremony was the ninth held in the NASCAR arena this week, but it was the first Denton ISD school so far.

Fred Moore, Braswell, Guyer and Denton high schools will follow with ceremonies of their own on Friday. In total, 32 local high schools will have conducted similar ceremonies by May 31 — less than one week away from the IndyCar season opener on June 6.

The ceremonies are the school district’s way of having commencement in person during a time when large gatherings are an increasing rarity the world over.

Parents, family and friends were parked in the arena’s in-field, where they could watch the proceedings from the 12-story, 218-foot-wide TV dubbed “Big Hoss.” Stadium speakers blasted speakers’ voices across sections of the arena, and those out of earshot could tune in via radio station 97.7.

Ryan High students wore masks cast in school colors and emblazoned with its logo. They took their seats, which were appropriately spread out, across the track itself before accepting their diplomas on the start/finish line.

Jeff Woo/DRC/  

Students take their seats and watch a video during the Ryan High School graduation ceremony Thursday at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Other than those three differences — venue, masks and social distancing — the ceremony and its participants felt far more familiar than most aspects of daily life for the past couple months.

Eyes smiled above masks more than brows furrowed.

Speeches from Principal Vernon Reeves and several graduates hardly referenced the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 or any of the changes it had forced upon them. They instead opted for more universal appeals to future success and reminiscences of good times had.

Mundane problems that have inevitably sneaked into graduation ceremonies since time immemorial mixed seamlessly with newer obstacles.

Students passed through metal detectors before lining up under a concrete roof, arranged alphabetically from Abrams to Zubieta. Shoes ranging from formal to Crocs, matched by anything from black dresses to slacks to shorts, poked out from beneath red robes.

Somebody dropped her tassel.

The perennial blaring of air horns accentuated the more constant blasting of car horns from parents parked beyond several sets of fences.

Faculty and staff routinely reminded students to maintain six feet of distance between them as they walked in, much the same way they might have been told “walk, don’t run” in hallways for years.

A few defiant seniors kept their masks around their necks or in their hands while walking toward their seats, but they seemed to diverge from the expected in the same way those wearing Crocs did.

One such student smiled as he approached a masked coach, who told the senior to “put the mask on.”

The student barely managed to ask “why?” before the coach responded good-humoredly: “Save a life.”

A smile accompanied the student’s compliance.

Next round of businesses set to reopen Friday; some not planning to reopen, yet

For the first time in two months, Denton residents will be able to attend entertainment venues such as bars and bowling alleys, as the next round of commerce reopens statewide on Friday.

After being closed for an extended duration and without much word prior to Monday, some businesses are deciding against opening right now, citing last-minute refining.

At Harvest House, the bar and music venue will not reopen on Friday, instead holding off until final measures are in place, owner John Lenz said. Many of those measures, such as hours of operation and a date of reopening, have not been decided yet, but he said the bar might reopen next week.

Some aspects, though, will not immediately return upon reopening, he added.

“Live music will come back, but we do not have a timeline as to when,” Lenz said, adding that would be determined at a later date.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the next wave of businesses to reopen including bars, bowling alleys, bingo halls, simulcasting, skating rinks, rodeo and equestrian events, in addition to zoos, aquariums and natural caverns. While each business is limited to 25% of total occupancy, others, like restaurants, are authorized to reopen to 50%.

As part of the minimum health protocols of reopening, bars will be required to remove or block off bar stools, so customers are unable to sit nor order at the bar itself, according to the Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas. In addition to disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects, individuals and groups must maintain proper social distancing of 6 feet minimum.

However, individuals 65 and older and those at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus are advised to stay at home as much as possible.

While face masks are recommended for employees of newly reopened businesses and customers, they are not explicitly required.

University Lanes Bowling Alley will reopen on Friday after an abrupt shutdown of nearly two months; however, capacity is limited, and for now, customers can only reserve hourly rates. During the lead-up to Friday’s reopening, additional measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus were taken, such as distributing hand sanitizer and cleaning house bowling balls, staff said.

Also, all interactive functions and exhibits — such as child play areas, interactive games and video arcades — are still closed under the state rules.

The move to further reopen the Texas economy comes during record totals of new coronavirus cases statewide and an increase of Denton County cases in the past two weeks. On Tuesday, Matt Richardson, director of Denton County Public Health, said cases have increased but that the overall positive rate has decreased by 2.7% over the past three weeks as testing increased.

“From May 4-18, Denton County has averaged just over 20 cases per day, so we are trending up slightly,” Richardson said to Denton County commissioners on Tuesday. “I would say that is good news, because of Texas and Denton County opening in the last few weeks, we are not seeing a big surge in cases. We wish it were going down, but no surge is encouraging.”

With the number of active cases throughout Denton County, community spread is a very real threat and still a significant concern for public health, said DCPH spokesperson Jennifer Rainey. Although commerce is hoping to rebound after two months of closures, some speed bumps are expected on the road to recovery.

As the economy reopens and contact exposure increases, health precautions are still recommended for the general public, Rainey added.

“We hope community members will choose to wear masks, sanitize and wash their hands frequently, and practice physically distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

For John Williams, owner of Eastside, Miss Angeline’s and Oak Street Drafthouse, a firm reopening date has not been decided upon yet, though he pointed toward June 1. The date is subject to change due to the need to finish renovations and retrain employees at his three bars to the new normal of “business as usual.” The decision, he noted, was safety-oriented.

“We are still wanting to start out slow and do not want to just jump in to where we were before,” Williams said, adding the goal is to keep staff and customers safe. “We have not decided on hours but will likely stick to the same as before.”

One of the challenges, he added, would be monitoring capacity of bars; however, a focal challenge could be informing customers of new guidelines such as not approaching the bar or other tables, he said.

He also is asking that the community remain considerate with the reopenings.

With commerce returning on the heels of an increase of cases and concerns of a second wave later this summer or in the fall, most are simply taking the return to normalcy in cautious stride.

“No one can predict the details of the future, but Harvest House will get through this we are all taking it one step at a time,” Lenz said.

Denton Community Market opening Saturday with pandemic restrictions

The Denton Community Market won’t have live music or kids’ activities on its opening day Saturday, but market-goers can still enjoy locally-sourced food from about 20 vendors — all while staying six feet apart.

The community market typically runs from April to November each year, but the board announced in mid-March that opening day would be delayed until further notice. A virtual community market was then set up, promoting vendors on social media who were fulfilling orders.

Opening day was announced for May 23 with a note for visitors to follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

“It’s a food and farm market [only] for the opening day,” said Vicki Oppenheim, the board of directors president for the market. “We came up with a plan that Denton County [officials] approved for us to open under the COVID environment … We hope to expand over the next coming weeks with additional vendors as we test out the COVID protocols.”

Rather than opening with the usual 80 to 100 vendors, Oppenheim said the market would have about 20 food-only vendors — including dog food for visitors’ furry friends.

“We’re requiring vendors to wear [face masks] and use gloves and have hand sanitizer available, minimizing any direct interaction with customers in terms of direct hand-to-hand contact,” Oppenheim said.

While vendors are required to wear face masks, it’s strongly encouraged for visitors. Oppenheim said the market will be selling its own face masks.

The community market spans across the lawn in front of the Bayless Selby House Museum, located at 317 W. Mulberry St, with vendors’ tents lined up right next to each other. Starting Saturday, those vendor tents will be spread farther apart, and visitors will be directed to a designated entrance.

Visitors also are being discouraged from attending if they feel sick or if they’re at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Oppenheim said they’ll have signs placed throughout the market reminding people to follow social distancing guidelines and added they’re discouraging people from lingering. Dogs also won’t be allowed, with the exception of service dogs.

“We just don’t want to promote a lot of congregating of people,” Oppenheim said.

The pandemic also has brought economic hardship to the market. Oppenheim said they’ve laid off staff.

“We are right now operating with the board volunteers,” Oppenheim said. “We anticipate being able to rehire staff at some point but we can’t say when yet … It’s a major undertaking to put on this market … We’re doing what we can do to keep going.”

The National Weather Service has predicted scattered storms and showers will develop Thursday in North Texas with a 60% chance of rain in Denton County and possible rain this weekend.

“We’ll have to monitor it,” Oppenheim said. “If it’s just light rain, we’ll be open. Worse comes to worst, we’ll be in the parking lot across Mulberry Street, but we hope it won’t happen.”