For Austin, A First-Class Reliever

AUSTIN, TX — In the April 2008 edition of airport business, we featured Ron Henriksen, a self-made millionaire and corporate pilot who decided to invest his millions into his professional and personal love — aviation. At that time, he was just finishing up his creation of the Houston Executive Airport in Brookshire, on the far western outreach of the nation’s fourth largest city.

At that time we wrote, “At college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville north of the nation’s fourth largest city, Ron Henriksen decided he wanted to be a pilot — corporate or airline. He wound up making a fortune in the telecom business, but never lost his roots in aviation. He’s decided to invest in the industry he loves, without a defined return on investment. To leave his mark, or in his words make his contribution, he built the Houston Executive Airport some 35 miles west of downtown. His success there led general aviation interests in the state capital, Austin, to seek him out for relief to their plight — a lack of adequate facilities since the opening of Austin-Bergstrom International, which led to displacement of hundreds of GA aircraft with the closure of the previous commercial airport, Mueller. He’s now on airport number two — a different airport, a different challenge.”

At that time, he had purchased the remnants of a once-vibrant small general aviation airport, known as Bird’s Nest Airport, located some 15 miles northeast of downtown Austin.

Central to this discussion is the fact that while GA aircraft were being dispersed from the former Mueller airport, the city was also shutting down the former Austin Executive Airport, just north of the city, to accommodate the expansion of Dell computers — an economic success.

That joint closure led to the displacement of several hundred based aircraft away from the city core, if for no other reason than the high costs associated with basing at the new Austin Bergstrom International. Before opening the converted Air Force base, the city had constructed an additional commercial runway, adding to the rates and charges cost of doing business there.

Since acquiring Bird’s Nest, Henriksen has acquired adjacent properties, realigned and expanded the runway, and is now in the process of building a first-class business aviation hangar/terminal complex along with associated T-hangars and sunshade facilities.

About the potential for the new Austin Executive when finished, Jim Craig, the airport manager and a long-time local professional with regional FBOs comments, “I’d say I’m bullish. They’ve needed a second airport ever since they got rid of the two good airports they had. They could easily have utilized Mueller as a down-sized downtown airport, but politics got into it and it went away. The Dell facility took out the other one.”

The new Austin Executive is slated to open in April, with a grand opening scheduled for May.

The same, but different

While much of what Henriksen is creating in Austin parallels what he built in Houston, there are differences. In Houston he built an airport from the ground up, and faced local opposition, next to a city renowned for its lack of zoning regulations. The concept of having a local airport in Brookshire was not immediately embraced.

Austin offers a different template. This is a high-tech city that prides itself as being a leader in the environmental movement and which takes political activism to the extreme. While the airport actually lies within the city limits of nearby Manor, it complies with Austin regulations, due to Texas law.

Henriksen admits that he expected more push-back from local politicians. He relates, “There really has not been, and I suspect one of the reasons that there has been almost no political pushback is that this airport has been here for 40 years. So, it’s no surprise to the neighbors or anyone else that it’s here. It was very busy back in the ‘70s. It was very active; there were several hundred aircraft based here. A friend of mine who is a captain for Southwest Airlines did a lot of flight training out here.

“The politics has been very pleasant. It’s completely different than Houston because there they did not want the airport there because it hadn’t been there. This one has been here, and it really doesn’t have any neighbors.

“It’s interesting; it’s exactly the opposite of what you would think. The only thing I can think is that this airport has been here, so all that animosity isn’t there because the airport is 40 years old. The airport’s here.

“Nobody complains about Bergstrom because it was already there [as an Air Force Base]. I guarantee if Bergstrom hadn’t been there and you tried to build it today, they’d probably lynch you.”

The new airport

What Henriksen is doing here is creating a business aviation airport with a 6,045-foot concrete runway just northeast of the city center. The airport rests on some 575 acres, with farmland/ranches the adjacent property. A new tollway that circumvents the city — state highway 130 — abuts the airport, and the city is creating a tollway exit directly to the airport, to accommodate anticipated economic development.

Comments Henriksen, “We hope to have 100 airplanes based here.”

His investment here stands at some $33 million. “It’s a lot to get back in fuel, isn’t it?” he says. In Houston, Henriksen invested some $31 million. Over time, he projects that the Austin airport could proved to be the better economic generator.

When opened, Austin Executive will have a corporate hangar/terminal complex, three rows of T-hangars, 13 shadeports, and some 15 acres available for development. The fuel farm will offer 20,000 gallons of jet-A; 20,000 gallons of 100LL; and a split tank for autogas and kerosene for tractors. Says Henriksen, “We built a concrete pad and bought the tanks; they’re Garsite tanks with a stainless steel liner in them. It’s a real advantage because with the other tanks you have to go in there every 15 years or so and refurbish.”

Creating his Austin airport has actually been a bigger financial challenge, says Henriksen, though the economic times have had an influence.

Relates Henriksen, “This land probably cost twice what it did in Houston. We’ve got 1,900 acres in Houston; we have 575 here. We started in Houston with an up economy, and halfway through the project we weren’t even sure if the contractors wanted the job because they were so busy. In the last half of construction, you could get anybody you want.

“Here we had a lot of people who wanted to build; we only took bids from three top-shelf firms. It was good for us because we’re getting it built fairly inexpensively; it’s great for the contractor because they’ve got something to do.”

Regarding his future in the building of airports, Henriksen says, “This is the last airport I’m building. I’m pretty sure.” But he admits he still has some money in the kitty for perhaps one more.

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