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."
He sent out direct mailers to over 2,500, purchased some limited classified advertising in the Chicago Tribune, and gave a few flyers to airline pilot friends to post at their operations. The rest was word-of-mouth, says Thomas. Through these methods, he managed to sell 118 lots, with 50 to 60 percent of those going to people with airline-related careers. "Golfers like to live on a golf course, boaters and fishermen like to live on a lake or river, pilots like to live with their airplane," says Thomas.
The plan for the park calls for segregating roads and taxiways for safety reasons. "That allowed us to build (roads) to village specs, so we dedicated the streets to the village, and now the homeowners don't have to maintain them," he explains.
Five taxiways branch off the main one into the backyards of residents. Hangars are either attached to the house or built separately. Lots range in price from $24,500 to $70,000. As part of the purchasing covenant with landowners, Thomas receives a fee of $50 per month per lot for airport upkeep.
Residents drill their own wells as needed, notes Thomas. Sewage is currently pumped into a holding tank where it's transported to a village treatment plant, but Thomas has plans with the village to jointly build a new treatment plant.
The treatment plant is just one of the positive fallouts the village and surrounding community, including the city of Belvidere just south of the airport, are experiencing as a result of the airport's growth.
With home values ranging between $200,000 to $600,000 the park is a good tax base for the village, and the residents provide a new income stream for businesses. "They're feeling the economic impact," says Thomas, adding that he is creating a built-in support for his airport in the community.
"We've created an aviation support group that has a vested interest in the airport," he notes. "It's really important, not so much now but 20 years from now. Who knows what'll happen to the surrounding land near the airport?
"Now all these people have a vested interest in the airport, even though they don't own the runway or the common area up there. Now they care about the airport... They want to make sure everything's done properly, and the airport's a good neighbor, so they can enjoy their lifestyle."
While the airpark was taking shape, Thomas also focused on building the FBO business. "Our FBO is important; it's really the heart of the airport," he says.
Thomas inherited a waiting list for hangar space from his father, and, not having funds to build himself, he offered those on the list long-term leases on airport property. The lessees were then allowed to build and own their own hangars. Under this plan, some 180,000 square feet of hangars were built. Thomas also rescued some old hangars from nearby Rockford County, which he refurbished and now leases.
As the number of based aircraft grew, the number of customers followed. Thomas' wife Tina is now chief instructor of a flight school employing four other instructors and operating 16 aircraft. The ground school is also used to draw in students, says Thomas. "We really think our ground school is an important stepping stone to get people a flavor of aviation and get them started flying." The FBO also teaches a ground school course for the local junior college.
Thomas expanded the maintenance shop to include an engine and accessories overhaul facility. "The growth of this business is driven by not only the airport expansion, but also by our reputation for providing good service," Thomas says of the shop. "The work that they perform comes from airports throughout the U.S."
Community relations on and off the airport
Thomas works to create a "good atmosphere" on the airport, he says, first by keeping the grounds neat, and second by helping newcomers fit in.
"A lot of times people come to the airport to get away from their headaches of daily lifeÉso when they come you want them to enjoy that and get what they're after, that escape. It's not necessarily to get in an airplane and go fly someplace; it's to come out and get in another world.
"We try to create a family atmosphere," says Thomas. "Part of that process, in visiting, is finding out what (newcomers) are interested in...and chances are, there's somebody here that has a similar interest," says Thomas.
The airport boasts several flying clubs. Midwest Antique Club, the Mid-West Stinson Club, and Vintage Aero all have hosted fly-ins on the field.
Also, an aviation museum club, headed by Tina Thomas, is working to raise money to build an aviation museum on an airport lot the Thomases are donating. Already the group has collected antique vehicles, an aircraft, and engine displays. "The establishment of the museum facilities, I think, is an important intellectual asset to the airport," says Thomas.
To keep community interest in the airport, the Thomases hold an annual open house and pancake breakfast where airplane rides are offered to children at a nickle a pound. Last year's breakfast drew 1,000 attendees, says Tina Thomas.
Steve Thomas also works to promote the airport in the surrounding community by speaking at civic group meetings whenever he gets the chance. "It helps me promote the airport and aviation. It creates an awareness of the airport so people don't take it for granted. The more people understand about airports and aviation, the better neighbors they can be to the airport, or better supporters," he says.
Today, with 45 employees and 200 based aircraft, Thomas isn't slowing down. He already has plans for the next step in his airpark project, which means purchasing a plot of land east of the airport. "The next phase will include an additional 150 lots and an 18-hole golf course. Of the 150 lots, probably half would have airport access and half would be lots with golf course frontage or lots like any other subdivision...The future's bright here," he says.