A Private (Airport) Enterprise
Political jockeying, airpark development are revitalizing a public-use facility in Northern Illinois
BY Monica L. Rausch, associate editor
POPLAR GROVE, IL — Pilots flying overhead may see the name Belvidere painted on a hangar roof, but anyone visiting this privately owned general aviation field located some 60 miles northwest of O'Hare International knows it as Poplar Grove Airport.
Steve Thomas, owner of Poplar Grove, planted a new sign on the front lawn when the airport was renamed in 1994, but he likes to keep the airport's old name still visible — just so he can retell the tale of how one county lost an airport, along with a large airpark, and a village with a vision gained one.
"We're so proud of the Village of Poplar Grove (for) recognizing the benefits of aviation and an airport," says Thomas. "We felt they deserved the prestige of having a sign in the front yard, saying Poplar Grove Airport, so we changed the name."
That's not all Thomas changed in his first five years of ownership. He managed to build up a strong maintenance facility and flight school, all the while selling off pieces of his property to form an airpark where residents have access to the field via taxiways running from their backyards. His tale is one of careful planning and investment.
Finding a foothold
For Thomas, the airport has always been a family business. His father, a farmer and private pilot, first purchased the property in 1971 and zoned it as a privately owned, public use airport. Two cattle sheds were converted into hangars and a grass runway seeded. Thus Belvidere Airport was born.
As planes populated the hangars, a mechanic was brought in to service the tenants, along with fuel tanks, a flight instructor, and "next thing you know, we're in the FBO business," says Thomas.
"It just grew as a small FBO for a number of years," he notes. By the time he purchased the airport from his parents in 1994, the airport employed 12, including four mechanics, was a base for about 45 aircraft, and featured a paved, 3,800-foot runway with two perpendicular grass runways. After selling "everything but our kids," as Thomas likes to say, he and wife Tina decided to put "200 percent" into their investment.
"We wanted to develop the airport. Now, you can develop the airport as a commercially intensive airport — more of a corporate type airport, or (you) can develop it as a lifestyle, general aviation airport, and not even attempt to go after the corporate traffic.
"We made a conscious decision to focus on just general aviation, not even think about putting jet fuel in, but really define and develop the atmosphere and the facilities to cater to the general aviation pilot. Keep in mind that people that frequent airports like this, general aviation airports, they come here because they choose to, not because they have to... Recognizing that they do have a choice, we want to do everything we can so that they choose our airport versus another one."
"Recognizing that we're not going to be a corporate jet center, so to speak, we decided to pursue the development of Bel-Air estates, our fly-in community," says Thomas.
Plotting the Airpark
Thomas approached Boone County for zoning to change 180 acres of airport property into 140 single family lots with another ten acres for some 40 units of condominiums. The county turned him down. He then turned to the mayor of Poplar Grove, who also doubled as his mailman, for help. Thomas convinced farmers dwelling between Poplar Grove and his airport to annex themselves to the village so that he, too, could be annexed, and subsequently get the zoning secured.
Selling the lots hasn't been a problem, says Thomas, since he had already done the research, finding that some 18,000 pilots lived within an 80-mile radius of his airport. "People don't realize we live in a densely pilot-populated area."
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