Getting Airports on the Radar

Study indicates a need for more integration with community development groups

Not too many decades ago, economic development was spurned by local banks, utility providers, and real estate companies. As banks became regional and national in scale, many communities lost economic development leadership and, subsequently, hired their own economic development agencies in the U.S., all competing for business expansion. A recent study in Central Ohio indicates that airports have worked to do when it comes to ensuring that economic development groups have a clear appreciation for the role local airports can play in their efforts.

The role of these economic development agencies is to retain business, to attract new business, and to foster entrepreneurship. The role of the local Chamber of Commerce, generally, is to promote business patronage by local consumers and customers. The airport’s role is to provide access to the local community; to function as a gateway to local industry and commerce; and, in some instances, provide real estate for industrial parks.

Recently, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority (CRAA), in a joint effort with the Ohio State University Airport, conducted a survey of economic development agencies. The focus: their perception of the importance of airports within central Ohio, and their perception of the role airports play in economic development.

Columbus, OH has significant airport assets — Port Columbus Inter-national, Rickenbacker, Ohio State University (OSU) Airport, and Bolton Field within the metropolitan area, and airports in surrounding counties.

The survey of economic development (ED) departments and agencies was conducted to measure, from their perspective, what attributes are important for the recruitment of new business. Such agencies typically tout the physical and economic attributes of a community (highway access, labor force, utility costs) which benefit businesses in the process of site selection.

The survey was sent to 53 area economic development departments and Chambers of Commerce, representing 31 jurisdictions in central Ohio; 30 percent responded. Each was asked:

  • number of employees dedicated to economic development;
  • the size of their annual budgets;
  • to rank which attributes are important to recruitment of new business to their jurisdiction; and
  • to rank impediments to economic development.

Responding ED agencies ranged in size from small rural towns to large cities. Annual budgets dedicated to economic development ranged from $50,000 annually to $1.5 million annually. Most ED agencies had one to two employees; a few had more than ten.

ED agencies were asked to rate the relative importance of 12 location factors on a scale of one (high) to 12 (low). The responses for each factor were averaged and then sorted by rank (see table below).

Economic development agencies rank commercial service airports eighth in the list of location factors. General aviation airports ranked last or twelfth on the list. A survey of businesses for a related CRAA study (table, page 27), in the same geographic area, indicates that businesses ranked commercial service airports fifth in the list of location factors and general aviation airports eleventh. When comparing the two sets of data, it’s apparent that there is a disparity in the perceived role airports play in economic development. Businesses give a higher ranking to commercial service airports than do ED agencies. Businesses also rank general aviation airports slightly higher.

The disparity is not too surprising, since business leadership has a better understanding of the “pulse” of their transportation requirements. According to a USA Today article, high-tech companies need 50 percent more air transportation than do basic manufacturing industries. Further, deeper analysis of the CRAA business survey responses indicates the professional and technical services industry sector and financial, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector ranked a commercial service airport as second on the list of location priorities — well above the overall business ranking of fifth.

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