Federal grants are flying to Indiana airports: Record money a boon for capital improvements

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Indiana airports landed record federal grants of $61.9 million in fiscal 2004 for everything from building taxiways to extending runways to transmitting weather data to pilots.

The $17 million, or 38 percent, increase from 2003 could bode well for economic development in cities with growing airports, such as Columbus.

“About 65 percent of our traffic here is business during the week. The more accessible we become, it’s bound to have an impact,” said Rod Blasdel, manager of Columbus Municipal Airport.

The Bartholomew County facility is getting $2 million in federal funds for apron and taxiway improvements. It is home to corporate aircraft used by employers in the area including ArvinMeritor Inc. and Cummins Inc.

Smaller airports like this often are a well-kept secret of economic development. Blasdel looked out his window and marveled as a Boeing 737 lumbered in for a landing on Columbus’ 6,401-foot runway. Even some locals are unaware that such big planes carry freight to manufacturing plants in the area.

At neighboring Monroe County Airport in Bloomington, with a 6,500-foot runway, “We’re bringing in [Boeing] 757s, pretty much loaded,” said Bruce Payton, manager of the airport that plays host to big birds carrying sports teams and corporate big shots.

The Indiana Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division said airports like this have become a model for attracting federal funding and luring corporate aircraft with improved facilities. Four giant companies regularly use the airport, including General Electric, Procter & Gamble and 3M. Monroe has more than 30 private hangars housing aircraft of locally based companies as well.

“They would not be located [in Bloomington] if we did not have the facility,” said Payton, who added the airport’s annual economic impact is estimated at $35 million.

Indiana’s airports have a direct and indirect economic impact of $2.8 billion, according to the Aviation Association of Indiana, which last year surveyed 104 public use airports in the state.

That money turns over several times within a year and generates an additional $1.3 billion, according to the association. The state’s airports also employ more than 18,940 people, amounting to wages in excess of $478 million, according to the association.

State officials believe much of the growth is driven by business aircraft operations. Many firms are again flying on their own as an alternative to growing delays and security issues at big airports. Data on business aircraft use is sketchy in Indiana, however. Few general aviation airports have control towers or track flights.

“Countless business jets may fly in and go to a meeting and [communities] would never know about it,” said Jim Keefer, manager of the Aeronautics Division at INDOT.

Keefer credits airport leaders, consultants and INDOT staff for working together aggressively to pursue funds. For airports such as Columbus, it amounted to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do preliminary studies and engineering to make a strong case for the money to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We were prepared where other states weren’t,” Keefer said.

Monroe County’s board of aviation has been successful in getting funds from the county council to do preliminary design work on capital improvement projects, allowing it to also go out and advertise for bids. That provides more accurate information to the FAA and helps increase the odds of getting the grant.

Payton concedes that getting a grant is a “gamble” at times. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get those grants.”

Moreover, he said some communities couldn’t afford to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance.

The Aviation Association of Indiana next spring plans to make a presentation to economic development groups statewide about the importance of airports in efforts to draw new companies.

“Build one mile of highway and it will take you one mile. Build one mile of runway and it will take you anywhere,” said Bart Giesler, executive director of the association.

Some airports already have decent infrastructure. They can tout longer runways, instrument landing systems and control towers.

“You want to make sure you have a good showing because the people flying in are the ones who are going to decide, ‘Let’s locate a factory here,'” Giesler said.

He pointed out as one of the more recent successes Gary/Chicago Airport, which has become the base for Boeing Business Jets. The Boeing facility includes a 50,000-square-foot maintenance hangar the airport previously constructed. “Once again, it’s having that infrastructure in place,” he said.

Generally, federal airport improvement program funds can be used for most capital improvements except for terminals and hangars. The federal share of projects is upwards of 90 percent for small primary airports, relievers and general aviation airports-with state and local governments in Indiana each picking up 2.5 percent.

Sopping up the largest share of the $61.9 million in federal grants in Indiana this year was Indianapolis International Airport at $28 million. Much of that goes toward roads for the future midfield terminal and for noise mitigation.

One smaller grant in the Indianapolis area, $150,000, was for what could be a large economic generator: the purchase of the former Terry Airport.

Hamilton County paid more than $4 million to acquire the privately owned field now called Indianapolis Executive Airport. County officials have stated they want to use the airport as an economic development tool.

Among other projects receiving federal grants:

French Lick Municipal Airport: $1 million to resurface its 5,500-foot runway. The improvement could be useful in luring high rollers when, and if, bankrupt Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts Inc. opens a casino in French Lick, planned for 2006.

Putnam County Airport in Greencastle: $1.4 million to construct a parallel taxiway to improve safety and airport capacity.

South Bend Regional Airport: $5.4 million to buy land for approaches and snow removal equipment. The airport is adding 1,100 feet to the north-south runway, bringing it to 7,100 feet.

State aviation planners see runway expansion as one of the key needs for Indiana airports.

“As a business tool, continue to develop Indiana’s airports to support corporate class activity by achieving at least 5,000 feet of runway length, where feasible and user needs support,” says one of the recommendations in the 2003 Indiana State Aviation System Plan.

Of the 69 airports in the state deemed to be of “statewide importance,” 32 have runways of 5,000 feet or longer. Another 24 are 4,000- to 4,999 feet and 12 others are general aviation airports with runways of 4,000 feet or less.

Some entry-level business jets require a minimum 4,000-foot runway.

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