A fresh look at New Castle-Wilmington Airport

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Good afternoon everyone,

New Castle County government has been largely silent over the years about a valuable piece of property it temporarily offloaded to the Delaware River and Bay Authority back in the mid-1990s.

At the time, the county saw New Castle-Wilmington Airport as a burden to county taxpayers, with the site posting losses in the $1 million range.

It made sense to let the DRBA handle such tasks. After all, the agency can spread its resources around the airports it operates. DRBA airports are believed to operate on a break-even basis.

But a 2020 deadline is looming that opens the door to New Castle County taking the airport in a new direction.

Today, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer announced the creation of a task force of business and community leaders to study “the current and possible new economic vision for the Wilmington Airport.”

I’ll have more on the event later today on the Delaware Business Now website.

Heading the group is former Delaware Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin, who is best known as the owner of the former Happy Harry’s drug store chain. Levin comes armed with the knowledge of the economic importance of the airport from his time at DEDO.

“The task force will also work to analyze and assess economic opportunities to support the growth of existing tenants, new job creation and revenue generation. The panel will submit a recommendation report by April 30, 2020.

Under the terms of the agreement between the county and the DRBA, the county must inform the bi-state bridge and ferry operator by June 30, 2020 renewing or canceling that lease that expires in 2025.

River and Bay points to investments made at New Castle-Wilmington Airport

By all accounts, the DRBA has done a solid job of running the airport itself. However, critics say it is not as focused on tapping into the site’s economic potential. The airport and environs is the home to 1,700 jobs and may be one of the most valuable pieces of land in the state.

The most visible issue centers on airline service. Frontier Airlines started out with a bang in 2015. but later decided to focus on the nearby Philadelphia International Airport as its focus shifted to ultra-low fares and charges for luggage etc.

Frontier requested that the name of the airport be changed from New Castle to Wilmington and New Castle-Wilmington name remains.

A key to landing an airline and upgrading the overall airport site would be new terminal building that would replace the structure that dates back to the days of the Brady Bunch and lava lamps.

As it now stands, Delaware is the only state in the union without scheduled airline service and there seems to be little enthusiasm by movers and shakers for a new terminal. After all, they argue, the Philly airport is a short drive away.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. It is clear that Meyer is more focused on economic development than his predecessors.

But does the county want to run an airport that might not break even, or is there a willingness to lease the site over a long period to a well-capitalized private entity?

As we have seen with the Port of Wilmington, Emirates-based Gulftainer has made good on its promise to pump $100 million into the site in return for a long-term lease. The company could pump as much as half a billion dollars into the site.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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