In the last two months, the Indianapolis Airport Authority board has approved spending at least $850,000 toward grand-opening parties and events in the form of contracts with caterers, event planners and public relations firms.
The expenditures are a sliver of the $1.1 billion outlay for the midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport, to open Nov. 11.
But in the aggregate, the spending would be enough to buy two runway-clearing snow blowers. Or five years of airport refuse disposal under terms of a new, five-year contract with Ray's Trash Service.
The contracts include up to $120,000 to Jug's Catering Services for a Sept. 6 contractor's event that fed 8,000 people at $15 a head.
Events like this were largely to recognize a job well done by thousands of workers who helped build the massive project on time and on budget.
Airport officials say events that on the surface appear frivolous have a purpose that will pay dividends later. Among them was a public tour of the facility Oct. 11-12 that drew an estimated 30,000 visitors.
Managing that event was locally based Rayna-Traylor Events, to which the airport authority on Sept. 5 authorized paying up to $245,000.
The airport tours were free and familiarized local residents with not only the configuration of the terminal but also how to find it. The new terminal is accessible from Exit 68 on Interstate 70 rather than from Interstate 465 as the current terminal is.
That event was geared toward the infrequent traveler who otherwise might show up late for a flight if not given the chance to get a feel for the layout ahead of time, said Patzetta Trice, head of marketing and communications for the authority.
"The more of those people who came to community days, the better. ... It was very important to our airline partners that we had this."
Airlines are covering the bulk of bond payments on the new terminal, in part through higher fees they'll pay to land there beginning next year.
Other events this month at the terminal included a reception for arts groups, coordinated by local event planner Donna Imus, for whom the authority set aside up to $60,000 in September.
The new terminal is a veritable art museum, with millions of dollars in public art from artists nationwide, all in the name of marketing Indianapolis to the visitors who pass through.
Meanwhile, the airport board in September authorized paying up to $150,000 to prominent Indianapolis public relations firm Sease Gerig & Associates for opening events and other airport services.
Among them was a private dinner at the terminal earlier this month, led by authority board President Randall Tobias. The dinner brought together airline officials and prominent local leaders. The 44 guests included Indiana Secretary of Commerce Nathan Feltman, BioCrossroads CEO David Johnson and the new CEO of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, Don Welsh. Welsh previously headed Seattle's visitors' association.
"The airlines were very impressed with who we had," said Sease Gerig principal Lou Gerig.
Gerig said Tobias wanted to use the occasion of the opening of the terminal in part to better familiarize airlines with the business community and its needs for additional air service here. At the same time, "the community got to hear the difficulties the airlines are going through right now," Gerig said.
He added that Tobias intends to use the event as a springboard for additional forums involving economic development and air travel.
Other midfield opening events have targeted travel managers, Trice said. An event in September that drew more than 1,100 people was done in cooperation with the ICVA. The association wants to include details on the new terminal as part of its pitch to bring conventions to the city.
Trice said officials also hope attention to the terminal helps pique the interest of air travelers in the region. The Cincinnati area alone generates an estimated 35,000 travelers at Indianapolis International each year. Some employers in that region encourage their employees to drive to Indianapolis International, where a diversity of airlines creates lower fares to many destinations than from Cincinnati's Delta Air Lines-dominated airport.
Airport records show the authority board in September authorized another $275,000 to food and beverage and other vendors for opening events.
Airport officials say taxpayer money was not used for the events. The funds came from airlines and other airport users.