Analysis: Unlocking an airport’s economic potential

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Levin, left and other members of the task force.

While questions at Wednesday’s press conference on the future of Wilmington Airport often centered on passenger service, the big story involves New Castle County looking for a way tounlock the economic potential of the site.

At the event, County Executive Matt Meyer announced the appointment of a task force headed by former Happy Harry’s owner and state Economic Development Office Director Alan Levin.

Meyer called the airport the county’s biggest economic development asset and vowed to have it operate for the benefit of the county’s residents.

Decades ago, the county helped to develop New Castle Corporate Commons, an office park adjacent to the airport. Corporate Commons is also home to administrative offices for New Castle County. Other land remains available.

The task force is operating under a 2020 deadline that would give current airport operator the Delaware River and Bay Authority the required five years advance notice in canceling a 35-year lease. The DRBA has managed the airport since 1995.

Meyer and Levin stressed that all options are on the table, including renewal of the lease.

It seems likely that the task force will look for an entity thatcould pump capital into the airport and open the door to possibilities that could include sizable employers involved in the training of pilots, technicians and other aviation professionals. The demand for aviation jobs will continue to grow as older workers retire and more people take commercial flights.

The DRBA works to keep the airport operating on a break-even basis, leaving little room for major capital improvements that are not financed by federal funds.

The State of Delaware succeeded in getting Emirates-based Gulftainer to agree to invest as much as $500 million in the Port of Wilmington under the terms of a long-term lease.

Meyer pointed to Detroit as an example of an airport operation that is focusing on pilot training and making the airport into an economic hub.Another airport in the Carolinas shifted its focus from attracting airline service to other types of aviation activity.

Attracting airline service will remain on the table.

Wilmington Airport will continue to live in the shadow of the Philadelphia International Airport and American Airlines, which offers hundreds of daily flights.

While a passenger terminal without an airline would seem to be a waste of money, a private operator might be able to come up with the capital for a new terminal. The terminal could serve private aviation clients and perhaps an airline at some point.

Levin, who worked on potential developments in the airport area while serving as economic development director, says one issue is determining “who’s on first” in terms of management/ownership of some properties in the airport area.

One issue that emerged last year involved Citigroup buying its office complex in Corporate Commons, with the county and the DRBA reportedly battling over who would receive proceeds from the sale.

Meyer says Citigroup has not reported back on a possible sale and added that the issue did not play into a decision to seek a path forward for the airport.

Meyer has been active on the Economic Development front in a county that has worked to shake off an anti-business reputation that came out of efforts to control sprawl through the county’s Unified Development Code

The task force will hold meetings that will be open to the public.

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