Adams County, Colo., Airport Director Credited With Revitalization

Sep. 13--Front Range Airport, north of Watkins in rural Adams County, is no bustling airline hub. In fact, no airlines fly here at all. At one time, some feared it was close to shutting down.

A recent flurry of activity at this small general-aviation airport should ease those fears. The nation's largest aviation air-traffic-control tower became operational in August, and last month Front Range also beat out other larger airports for the coveted contract to house a new aircraft-manufacturing facility.

If Front Range can build on those successes, it is poised to become an economic engine for Adams County and a regional hub for commercial shipping.

Much of the credit for this growth goes to Dennis Heap, the airport's aviation director.

When Heap arrived more than a decade ago, Front Range was down and out, fading in the shadow of the new Denver International Airport. Front Range had been designed to serve as an air-cargo hub. Then DIA was allowed to build a competing cargo facility.

By 1993, Adams County wanted to stop funneling money into Front Range. Heap had spent much of his career in the airline industry, 15 years of it working for Rocky Mountain Airways. He took the job at Front Range, he said, intending to spend five years getting enough experience to move to a commercial airport somewhere nice -- such as Durango, Montrose or Eagle.

"Before that first five years were up, I started to fully understand the long-term impact that Front Range was going to have," said Heap, 62.

He now says he plans to stay for another nine years, or "until I either get sacked or my health gives out." His motivation is the vision of a thriving cargo hub.

"Everything that comes into our stores, everything we consume basically has to be transported," Heap said. "It used to be you went into the store and in back there was a warehouse." Now, merchandise is delivered by truck on a "just in time" basis. But arranging for shipment and delivery of those products has been less than successful.

Heap has worked with the Schuck Corp. to develop an intermodal hub called TransPort next to Front Range that will bring together air, rail and truck commerce.

The new 192-foot air-traffic-control tower allows the airport to handle more business jets and, symbolically, tells the aviation world "that we're serious, we're open for business," Heap said.

Aviation Technology Group's decision to open a manufacturing facility at Front Range added momentum to the airport's growth. ATG is based at Centennial Airport and had considered locating its facility there, as well as in New Mexico and Utah.

Heap hopes ATG's presence will signal to other companies and ATG vendors that they also could be at Front Range. And because ATG's move will stimulate higher traffic for airplanes, it could also speed up the federal funding to extend Front Range runways for a cargo facility.

Experts say Heap has been successful because he runs the airport like a business while negotiating with political finesse. His private-sector expertise helped him get the public-sector job in the first place, said Robert Loew, executive vice president of TransPort and county attorney at the time Heap was hired.

Heap's ability to survive in the aviation industry is unusual, said former boss Gordon Autry, who started Rocky Mountain Airways and hired Heap more than 30 years ago.

"Dennis is very honest, very fair and has a pretty big heart," Autry said.

He also "makes things happen," said Larry Pace, an Adams County commissioner and chairman of the Front Range Airport Authority. "He's very optimistic that people are going to follow through," even if that doesn't always happen.

Heap's mission to turn Front Range into a cargo hub has been a daunting one that, if possible at all, may take 20 years to complete. That may be what keeps Heap in the job.

At one point, the airport authority had to make him take time off, according to Pace.

"We just finally said, 'Dennis, you're building up all of this vacation time, go ahead and take some of it.' He dedicates too much of his life to the airport."