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Soaring Success: Airport's impact among best in Indiana

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Columbus Municipal Airport has a $650 million effect on the community and state, making it one of the top economic engines among Indiana airports.

It will become a bigger player if airport officials have their way.

Commercial flights to Chicago, attracting more business to the airport and project partnerships with Ivy Tech Community College have been discussed.

Columbus Municipal Airport, 4770 Ray Boll Blvd., ranks No. 6 in economic effects among the state’s 69 airports, according to the 2012 Indiana Airports Economic Impact Study. Columbus trailed only the Indianapolis International ($4.6 billion), South Bend Regional ($1.7 billion), Fort Wayne International ($975 million), Evansville Regional ($946 million) and Warsaw Municipal ($859 million) airports.

“I think Columbus has been a quiet gem in the past,” said Brian Payne, who took over as Columbus’ airport director Sept. 4.

The study is conducted annually to demonstrate the effect airports have as an industry in Indiana. This year’s study said Indiana’s airports combined have a $14.1 billion influence.

This year’s study differs from previous ones, though. Besides accounting for the direct effect of on-airport businesses, such as flight schools and aviation maintenance, and airport users, such as businesses and individuals, the study accounts for these on-airport businesses and airport users spending money in the local economy and doing business with other local businesses.

Columbus’ ranking is more notable, Payne said, because the airport is self-funded and operates on a small staff. The airport, which has an operating budget of $1.3 million this year, receives no money from the city budget.

Besides Payne, the airport employs two maintenance workers and one office manager. Including employees from other businesses directly at the airport, Columbus Municipal operates with 46 full-time and one part-time employee.

Payne said he wasn’t surprised by the Columbus airport’s high ranking.

“When you look at everything the airport has for its size, we have a substantial amount of assets here,” he said.

Valuable assets

Columbus’ effect derives largely from the amount of land it leases, farms and the individuals and businesses who use the airport facilities. The airport received nearly $1.4 million in revenues this past year.

The airport owns 1,941 acres on the north side of Columbus and has about 80 leases. Not factored into its economic ranking is land it owns and leases at the former Walesboro airport site.

Formerly the Atterbury Army Air Forces Base during World War II and renamed Bakalar Air Force Base in 1954, the airport property was deeded to Columbus more than 40 years ago when it was declared military surplus.

Companies such as Cummins Inc., Faurecia, Rhodes Aviation, Elwood Staffing and Taylor Brothers Construction lease property from the airport.

The city leases property for Fire Station 2, the soccer fields north of Parkside Elementary and Animal Care Services. Other tenants include IUPUC, Ivy Tech, the Indiana National Guard for its armory and the Elks Club.

Hangar rentals provide income for the airport, but they also help companies and individuals conduct business by storing the airplanes they need for traveling.

Columbus Municipal contracts with an agricultural business to farm 1,734.7 acres, which includes some land around Walesboro. This year, the airport has netted $372.64 per acre, or $646,418.16, Payne said. This past year it netted $659,083.09.

Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum, owned by the airport and next to the terminal building, generates revenue by attracting tourists.

Another cog in the Columbus airport’s economic engine is the shuttle service it has offered to Detroit since Nov. 1, 2011. Two flights are offered Tuesday and one Wednesday. Most passengers are executives from companies in the automotive industry. Detroit is home to three large automotive manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

“It’s a convenience for our companies, a way to send personnel on day trips. ... It’s cost effective,” said Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development board.

Ultimate Air Shuttle provides the $495 flights, but Columbus Municipal makes money off the service by getting a portion of the fuel sales. The additional effect of the flights is the money spent by passengers at the airport or in Columbus, and the business Columbus companies receive.

“Our airport is one of the better kept secrets in Columbus,” Mayor Kristen Brown said.

She said the airport is a valuable community asset because it promotes aviation and fosters economic development.

“Not only does the airport directly create jobs, many of our community’s businesses depend on the airport for the convenient and efficient transport of their employees and customers, as well as their parts and products in a global marketplace.”

Airport officials hope plans will increase the value and influence of the airport.

In the future

Payne said one of the main goals is to increase the amount of operations at the airport.

He’d like to see additional fixed-base operations, such as a fueling company. For example, Rhodes Aviation rents space at the airport so it can fuel and perform maintenance on airplanes and provide flight instruction and charter services.

Columbus Municipal Airport currently receives 18 cents per gallon of fuel pumped into airplanes.

“I think there is a need for competition, and the end result of competition could be lower prices in fuel and more people driving here for fuel,” Payne said.

Adding operations that help support aircraft in the area make sense in the long run, said Dick Gaynor, vice president of the Columbus Board of Aviation Commissioners.

Building more hangars to store airplanes could bring in more rental revenue, Payne said. The airport has plenty of land to develop for more hangars, he added.

Adding commercial flights, possibly to Chicago or Nashville, Tenn., has been discussed.

“Chicago, that’s sensible because it’s a gateway to the rest of the world,” Payne said.

Direct flights to Chicago would eliminate the need to drive there or to drive to Indianapolis to catch a flight to Chicago.

Gaynor said Columbus has to be careful about having too many flights to one destination, though, because there’s a threshold at which the Transportation Security Administration requires all passengers and their luggage to be checked. The airport doesn’t want to deal with that yet, he said.

The airport is working on projects with Ivy Tech’s Columbus campus that could attract people to the community, in addition to providing an economic boost.

Payne has been discussing creating an aviation education program and also displaying student artwork in the interior of the terminal building.

Discussion has centered on initially creating an aviation management degree, said Steve Bardonner, associate professor and interim dean for the School of Technology at Ivy Tech. The first step would be creating a 15 credit-hour program that would award people a certificate of technology. That would help gauge interest in such a course.

“My challenge is to have something ready in the spring so we could start in the fall (of 2013),” Bardonner said.

If the certificate program goes well, the course could eventually expand to a 30 credit-hour technological certificate program and then a 60 credit-hour associate’s degree.

Bardonner said the nearest aviation program is in Indianapolis, but that’s for learning how to repair the fuselage and engines. An aviation management program in Columbus could attract students here, Payne said.

When Payne was director of the airport in French Lick, he turned the main lobby into an “artport.” The lobby became a destination point for people, he said.

Payne would like to do the same for Columbus by displaying photographs, paintings, sculptures and other student art. Payne thinks the idea fits into what the city is doing in creating an arts district. He has been working on the idea with Jan Banister, program head for environmental design at Ivy Tech.

“The airport, for some people, is a gateway to Columbus. So, Columbus architecture and history and the history of the airport or lifestyle things would be obvious subject matter,” Banister said.

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