Officials Hope to Cash in on Byron Airport's Potential

The Byron Airport is a sparkle in the eyes of many east Contra Costa leaders who see an untapped economic gem sitting in their rural backyard, but political and physical barriers are conspiring to prevent a major expansion.

East County cities are good at building homes, and retail centers are sprouting up at a rapid clip. What the region sorely lacks is substantial commercial development.

The region has more houses and more people than its country roads, school systems and job market can handle. The flood of relatively inexpensive homes has attracted an influx of white collar and middle class residents, who in turn have drawn major retail outlets to a host of newly minted strip malls in Antioch, Brentwood and beyond.

What East County has yet to embark upon with any success, however, is the third stage of suburban development: job growth.

Enter the recently updated Byron Airport Master Plan, which asserts that upgrading the airport and the surrounding network of roads to accommodate corporate and -- possibly -- cargo flights could spark an economic resurgence in a region long relegated to the fringe of the Bay Area's commercial world.

The small, county-owned airport was built for $22 million in 1994 to help relieve traffic from the county's other airport in Concord. Currently, the two runways host about 40,000 take-offs and landings every year -- compared with more than 200,000 at Concord's Buchanan Field -- mostly involving hobbyists and skydiving tours.

"We're not talking short-term development; we're talking long-range planning," said Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Piepho.

Building up the 1,400-acre, two-runway airport to support greater air traffic as well as office and light industrial projects is "one piece of the puzzle" in East County's ongoing drive to encourage an economic shift from the built-up regions to the west into the heart of one of California's fastest growing suburban areas, she said.

But in order for the airport to grow from serving mostly small-plane owners, employers must first migrate in substantial numbers to Brentwood, Antioch, Oakley and Pittsburg, according to the airport plan, which the Board of Supervisors approved in June.

Those future employers would require the services of firms such as UPS and FedEx, as well as larger-scale shipping connections to the rest of the region. The Byron Airport can grow to accommodate that need, which would in turn help draw more businesses to the area.

"This is a chicken and egg situation, but you need both of them to make it work properly," said Courtland Holman, a project manager for Brentwood's Economic Development Department.

"(The airport plan) works well with our forecasts for what we need to do with our city," Holman said.

Brentwood and Antioch are busy courting business park developers and industrial projects, and officials in both cities say a more active airport would help them attract jobs to the region.

Growth at the airport would require improved roads heading south and east from Byron into Alameda and San Joaquin counties to handle big rigs and more traffic. The booming cities in the Tri-Valley and the quickly growing San Joaquin cities of Tracy and Mountain House could benefit from an expanded airport as well.

"They're developing west, and we're going east; it's a whole new playing field between Antioch and Stockton. (The airport) ties them together across county lines," said Linda Pappas Diaz, Antioch's assistant city manager.

But the vision of a Byron air cargo hub serving East Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Alameda counties will take a decade or more to realize, according to the master plan.

The biggest factors keeping the airport small is its lack of any major road, sewer, water, natural gas or electrical connections to the outside world, said Beth Lee, business and development manager of Contra Costa's airport division.

The best chance of making those connections lie with private developers who see business potential at the airport and who would build the necessary improvements themselves. But any serious developer interest is unlikely before the surrounding cities sprout a "critical mass" of new businesses, Lee said.

According to a 2003 report on the airport's economic future, however, East County's economy is not expected to grow enough over the next 20 years to attract cargo flights.

Adding to the expense of building up the Byron Airport is its location -- smack in the middle of thousands of acres of protected habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the kit fox and burrowing owl.

"There's such a burden in terms of endangered species. Anything that moves forward will have to be pretty well planned out," said Save Mt. Diablo's Seth Adams, who helped put the airport plan together.

"The (planning) process started with a lot more optimistic idea of airport expansion, and I think people have backed off of that," he said. "A cargo airport seems much less likely."

Another factor limiting growth in the region is the county's urban limit line, which allows building on the airport itself, but not in most of the surrounding area, Lee said.

"If you get more commercial development in the surrounding area, it's more likely the airport will have more commercial development on it," she said.

The region's cities, meanwhile, are casting their eyes away from the airport to the north and west when looking for economic development opportunities.

Brentwood Mayor Brian Swisher is more interested in working with Antioch and Oakley to build a business park near the Antioch Bridge and Highway 4 than he is in exploring development at the airport.

"Do we want the economic development (at the airport)? Of course we do," said Swisher. "(But) we're not going to spend any resources on it because we don't feel like it's the best way to utilize our money."

That is a common theme among policy-makers in the county, so it is unlikely the Byron Airport soon will be the engine that drives East County's economy. That's not to say, however, that will not change.

In the end, the airport will likely mature much like the rest of the region -- at first in fits and starts, then at break-neck speed.

"I think eventually, if you wait long enough, my grandkids are going to see something happen around that airport," said Kathy Leighton of the Bryon Municipal Advisory Council.