One Potential Crows Landing Developer Wants to Court Air Taxis

The concept of "very light jets" as a job generator at the Crows Landing Air Facility holds some promise, but also faces some challenges, according to a county study.

The concept was raised by one of the two contenders vying to develop the 1,527-acre former Naval air station for Stanislaus County.

The county acquired the air facility in 2004 and wants to develop it as a business park to create jobs and added tax base. The Board of Supervisors is expected to choose Tuesday between the two developers.

Hillwood, a Texas-based company owned by Ross Perot Jr., raised the potential of the air facility attracting a new category of aircraft called very light jets, or microjets.

The jets are smaller and less expensive than conventional business jets. Just now reaching the market, they seat six to eight people and cost $1 million to $3 million.

Proponents envision very light jets becoming the backbone of an air taxi system offering an alternative to conventional airlines, delivering passengers to smaller airports nearer their destinations at about the same price as an airline ticket.

They also are affordable to a much larger segment of recreational and business owners than the larger corporate jets.

Hillwood representatives say the Crows Landing Air Facility could attract businesses related to very light jets, such as maintenance, pilot training and even manufacturing.

AIR TAXI CONCEPT

Stanislaus County asked aviation consultant David B. Heal of Mead & Hunt Inc. to evaluate that premise.

Heal's study noted that predictions on the growth of the very light jet market vary widely and depend on the success of the air taxi concept.

The Crows Landing Air Facility will likely prove attractive to very light jet users and service providers, the study says, but there are potential problems in luring those businesses.

The rural and isolated nature of the air facility is listed as a plus and a minus.

Low population density and uncongested air space are a plus for airport operation, but a minus for attracting business. There is no nearby airline service, rental cars or taxis, and no existing corporate or business activity, the study noted.

The Crows Landing air site would face "formidable" competition from established nearby airports with comparable or better facilities, according to the study. Those airports won't need the initial investment the Crows Landing facility needs to handle the small jets.

Timing is another potential problem, the study says. By the time the Crows Landing Air Facility is up and running, the very light jet maintenance and training businesses may have chosen other sites.

John Magness, senior vice president of Hillwood, said Thursday that very light jets are "a real market with real potential."

Competition from other airports doesn't deter Hillwood, Magness said.

"You can never operate in an environment with no competition," he said. "We are perfectly positioned with our relationship with the makers of these jets and the training facilities."

Timing is not an issue either, Magness said.

"If we are lucky enough to get picked, we will be marketing the airport to manufacturers and training companies the next day," he said. "We are going to capture that market."

Magness said Hillwood could have the air facility up and running in 18 to 24 months.

The study is the second the county commissioned in relation to the Crows Landing Air Facility. The first, released last week, looked at the feasibility of a short-haul rail link between Crows Landing and the Port of Oakland.

PCCP West Park LLC, headed by Sacramento-based developer Gerry Kamilos, is centered on the short-haul rail connection.

The county rail study concluded that the rail link wasn't realistic. It cited intermodal rail facilities already in place near Stockton, and said trucks are more economical than short-haul rail.

State bond money for the short-haul rail service may not be approved for expensive grade separations in Patterson, and freight volume at Crows Landing doesn't justify a short-haul service, the study says.

Kamilos contends that the study is flawed because it doesn't recognize the coalition of Bay Area and Central Valley agencies working on the concept, and the fact that West Park is willing to subsidize the service for the first 10 to 15 years.

Freight business at Crows Landing would build gradually as the site is developed, Kamilos said in a formal response to the county study.

Both studies along with the history and background of the air facility are available on the county's Crows Landing Air Facility Web site, .



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