Hundreds of acres surrounding Columbus Municipal Airport may be transformed into a recreational and business mecca — creating an Aerotropolis, as advocates are calling it.
Airport officials want to attract stores, restaurants and service businesses to the 472-acre Columbus AirPark, part of the nearly 2,000-acre airport property off Central Avenue on the city’s north side.
Although the project is in the conceptual phase and has not been vetted completely, the city’s Board of Aviation Commissioners has discussed it, and Airport Director Brian Payne said some formal decision could come at the group’s July 8 board meeting.
The AirPark is home to five college or university campuses, government offices and some businesses, surrounded by farm fields.
But Payne and the board are considering major changes that would transform the rural area into a destination location for dining out, playing outside and exercise.
A preliminary plan for the area’s future use calls for a town center retail area, indoor sports facilities, hotels, a People Trails extension, student housing and multiple parking lots.
A sports-challenge area on the west side of the airport would support Tough Mudder team obstacle course events, Ultimate Frisbee team competition, rock climbing, a ropes course, a continuous loop bicycle track made of dirt that a user rides without pedaling, a skateboard park and a BMX bike track.
A proposed Info Tech Park within the complex would have a medical clinic, an outdoor sports complex, retail businesses and hotels or motels.
The plan also calls for dozens of air-dependent business buildings, future airplane hangars and a solar farm that will house rows of solar panels to generate electricity.
“The whole idea with an Aerotropolis is you can do anything you want to do on the airport property or the area immediately surrounding (it),” Payne said.
So far, the aviation board has agreed to begin planning for a retail and athletic complex. The commission has hired Aloft Strategies, an Indianapolis-based marketing firm, to create a plan for attracting businesses to the park.
Airport board member Caleb Tennis said tenants and users of the AirPark have often wished for places to eat and things to do while on the property. Those voices are what drives the board’s plan as members determine what steps to take next, he said.
“We feel very strongly that we need some additional development along the Central Avenue corridor,” he said. “We essentially have to finish out a subdivision plan on the area.”
Tennis said that, while the board determines exactly how that subdivision will look, he already has had conversations with businesses interested in locating to the AirPark soon.
“We do have some things in the works; and over the next couple of months, this (subdivision) could help solidify those deals,” he said.
Meanwhile, airport officials are creating a website dedicated to the Columbus AirPark. It will be used to market available space for the types of businesses the commission wants to attract, Payne said.
Housing drives restaurant need Aerotropolis planning follows the announcement of a student apartment building for the colleges and university located in the AirPark. Construction on the housing complex is scheduled to begin this fall.
The 112-bed student housing facility at the southwest corner of Ray Boll Boulevard and Poshard Drive was approved by the aviation board last year. Iowa-based company Bluffstone LLC has leased land to build the two-story facility.
There are two options for dining in the AirPark — the IUPUC cafe and Blackerby’s Hangar Five public restaurant at the airport.
But with 100 students expected to move into the campus apartment complex in summer 2015, more restaurant options in the vicinity will be needed, Payne said.
The aviation board hopes to have another restaurant open at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Poshard Drive before the student housing is finished.
The aviation board last year surveyed students, employees and nearby residents about restaurant preferences. Among about 600 responses, American food was the favorite style — either as a dine-in or fast-food restaurant.
More than 80 percent of people responding to the survey said they would use restaurants in the AirPark at least a few times a month, Payne said.
IUPUC graduate Nathan Smith said there’s already a high demand for dining-out options in the campus area.
“I talk to a lot of students that come here and ask, ‘What’s the hangout?’” he said. “I bring my lunch a lot of the times because it gets expensive to eat here, even though it’s the only option.”
IUPUC vice chancellor and Dean Marwan Wafa said the demand for student housing and the results of the restaurant survey support the need for more services in general.
“If we’re talking about housing and enrollment growth, we’re talking about human needs,” he said.
Wafa said those needs could include restaurants, coffee shops, new business space for entrepreneurs, gas stations, laundromats and entertainment venues.
Funding airport operations
Any changes to the AirPark would mean updating its preliminary future land use plan, which requires approval from the City Plan Commission and City Council, Payne said.
The AirPark’s future land use plan is crucial to the airport’s daily operations because the revenue generated from AirPark tenants pays for the airport, which is not supported by city tax dollars, Payne said.
Without AirPark revenue, there wouldn’t be enough funding to support the airport, he said.
Payne said it takes about $1.6 million each year to run the airport, funded through AirPark leases, hangar fees, farmland rentals and fuel fees.
“It’s an economic impact generator,” Payne said.
Columbus Municipal Airport in 2012 had an economic impact of $650 million, according to a study by Conexus Indiana and the Aviation Association of Indiana.
The study accounts 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 also accounts for the amount of money airport property users spend in the local economy and the business they conduct with other firms.
Payne said the AirPark has changed dramatically since the first land use plan was adopted in 2008. He called the original plan “somewhat restrictive.”
For example, it did not see the need in 2008 for student housing or retail businesses to serve those students, Payne said.
The aviation commission’s vision for the future is far broader, he said.
“Retail is absolutely something that we want to do soon,” Payne said.