Airport neighbors team up on ‘AeroVision’

Mayor Greg Ballard is expected on Jan. 30 to lay out plans for a cross-county economic development area anchored by Indianapolis International Airport that promises to quell political divisions and clear the way for investment.

ballard-greg-mug Ballard

An “AeroVision” committee, to be composed of leaders from the airport and its neighboring government jurisdictions, will focus on airport-related economic development issues that could benefit everyone.

The committee includes members from Hendricks and Morgan counties and Wayne and Decatur townships. Representatives from Plainfield, Mooresville and Indianapolis are also expected to be on board.

“I think collaboration is incredibly critical to the success of regional communities,” said Jeff Quyle, economic development coordinator at Hoosier Energy and Morgan County’s appointment to the AeroVision committee. “We appreciate having a seat at the table.”

Like most airports, Indianapolis International has had a complicated relationship with its neighbors.

aerovision-factbox.gifHomeowners in three counties have complained over the years about aircraft noise. Decatur Township leaders often have protested expansions of airport property that they say erode their tax base.

And conversely, the Indianapolis Airport Authority has been siccing its lawyers on a developer planning an off-airport lot that could eat into its $40 million a year in parking revenue.

A committee to facilitate cooperation among the various jurisdictions was proposed a few years ago when former Airport Director John Clark embraced the “aerotropolis” concept popularized by University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda.

Aerotropolis is simply a fancy name for an airport-anchored economic region.

An aerotropolis typically has distinct clusters of development, such as passenger-driven businesses and freight/logistics operations. Less airfield-intensive businesses, farther out, might include office parks, for example.

The concept incorporates other strategic infrastructure planning details. There might be dedicated expressways built to carry trucks and reduce congestion, for example. Clusters could be separated with green spaces. Thematic architectural figures, art and other structures could make navigating the aerotropolis easier.

Such breadth of planning generally doesn’t happen on its own, Kasarda said. Often, it’s localized and “politically and functionally fragmented.”

Indianapolis International will grow outward and increasingly encompass other towns and counties. But the question is, “Will it be managed properly?” said John Fallon, associate vice president of economic development and community engagement at Ball State University’s Building Better Communities program.

That’s why “interlocal agreements such as the one IAA is about to formalize with its neighboring jurisdictions is an important milestone for successful aerotropolis development,” Kasarda said.

The director of UNC’s Center for Air Commerce said such agreements cause an airport and neighbors to communicate and cooperate in ways they hadn’t previously.

“The entire airport region becomes more competitive, serving to attract additional investment, create more jobs and expand jurisdictional tax bases, resulting in better outcomes for all,” he added.

Cities such as Detroit and Memphis have already embraced the aerotropolis concept with gusto.

Nine government units near Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport signed a cooperation agreement in 2006.

Within a year, a 35-member public-private leadership task force emerged to oversee an aerotropolis strategy. More recently, an economic development corporation was formed to collaborate with local governments on such things as marketing, business attraction, master planning and design standards.

Indianapolis Airport Authority board President Michael Wells said he wants to keep things simple with the AeroVision committee, at least for now.

Michael Wells Wells

“We’re not doing high-level, 30,000-foot stuff,” he said.

Meeting with leaders from neighboring counties, who were “suspicious of me just a little bit,” Wells told them they needed to have realistic goals.

That includes acknowledging upfront that it’s unlikely one jurisdiction will allow another to give it guidance on how to zone a particular piece of land, for example.

So Wells’ suggestion was that the committee work on projects that benefit the entire airport area. Among preliminary ideas is jointly exploring corridor improvements to U.S. 40, between Indianapolis and Plainfield, to make it more enticing to airport-related development.

Another thing to look at is improved highway connections between Interstate 70 and State Road 67. The current connection, State Road 267, has hairpin turns and brings undesirable truck traffic through parts of Mooresville.

The benefit of working on small projects is that committee members from the neighboring areas become more familiar with one another. That will make it all that much easier later, when they tackle projects such as attracting a big airport-related development.

Quyle said one big site selection criteria is work-force availability—an issue the committee has an opportunity to study in regard to aerotropolis goals.

He knows that Morgan County has any number of skilled workers and employees in industries from logistics to parts suppliers that could contribute to airport-related development.

The county might not see benefits of economic growth at the airport right away, but as that development expands outward, it will, Quyle said. “We realize we need to be patient.”

One of the issues the committee will ponder is the size and scope of the so-called aerotropolis. What are the boundaries? Should it be defined as a 10-mile, or say a 20-mile, radius from the airport? Or should it be defined in car-driving minutes, for example?

For now, “this is kind of the early step of formalizing the agreement,” said airport authority spokesman Carlo Bertolini.

The authority has already drafted a new land-use plan for its own property. It includes plans for aviation-related businesses where the old passenger terminal stands. It is to be torn down this year. The land-use plan also envisions logistics businesses on the northeast corner of the property, a business/education park on the north side, and a multimodal transportation park on the west end of the airfield.

Indianapolis International already boasts a central Indiana economic impact of more than $4.6 billion annually.•

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