With New Terminal, Upgrades, Owensboro-Daviess County Airport Is Poised For More Growth

July 06--The Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport now has a new terminal, an 8,000-foot runway and two carriers serving the flying public and boardings that now exceed the 30,000 mark.

And the FAA's air traffic contract control tower has been funded through 2015.

But there's more potential for growth, according to local leaders. And at the same time, the list of priorities for the airport board will include protecting the public investments and retaining both carriers, Allegiant Air and Cape Air.

The airport board, fixed-base operators and other community leaders would like to see the airport thriving with a flight school, aviation service center, an Air National Guard unit, another air carrier, a second Allegiant resort destination, more businesses at the facility and more pilots using it.

Some of those are long-term projects, but officials already are laying the groundwork for most of these.

Momentum can help

The airport gets $1 million each year from the FAA for capital improvements if it has more than 10,000 boardings per year. It has surpassed that mark each year since 2009 when Allegiant began offering nonstop flights to and from Orlando, Florida.

The facility got another boost in December 2011 when Cape Air started its Essential Air Service of providing low-cost, federally subsidized flights to and from St. Louis.

The $2.8 million terminal expansion project that was completed in the fall of 2012 included adding 8,500 square feet to the 14,000-square-foot facility and making numerous upgrades including quadrupling the holding area space where passengers stay after they have cleared security and adding bathroom facilities for that area.

Other recent investments have included: a $600,000 renovation of the control tower by the FAA; completion of the $2.3 million instrument landing system relocation project; and improvements of about $500,000 for two of the airport's fixed-base operators.

At the airport board's meeting June 17 -- the last one of its fiscal year ending June 30 -- Airport Director Bob Whitmer reviewed 14 work priorities that members set for 2013-14. A number of them are projects that are broad in scope and will carry over for the new fiscal year.

"In terms of protecting and retaining, we want to keep our control tower," Whitmer said. "And we want to work to keep Cape Air and Allegiant. Allegiant expects 90 to 95 percent capacity on its flights, and we've been hitting that."

Owensboro's control tower is one of several at small- and medium-sized airports that has been in jeopardy of closing as a result of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. But the federal government has approved dedicated funding for the towers through September 2015.

The board also knows how quickly it could lose the Allegiant flights to Orlando, so it has nurtured the relationship to keep them, Whitmer said. Allegiant's nonstop flights to Las Vegas were short-lived -- about 10 months. The company said demand was not high enough.

The airport assists with a long-term fuel agreement and does the ground-handling so the company has no employees at the terminal, and the location is a plus, he said.

"Owensboro is at the top of the list to receive another Florida destination," Whitmer said.

More pilots, businesses sought

The airport board also wants to keep working to boost its general aviation numbers -- flights that are outside of the commercial aircraft carriers.

"Those have been decreasing for about 12 years, some due to the economy, and we want to keep working to get those back up."

The board is tackling that objective by working on several fronts -- with education partners and by trying to recruit more aviation businesses to the airport.

Funding is just one issue in keeping the control tower.

"That also involves getting more activities on the field," board chairman Ray Assmar said. "I want to promote general aviation with a flight school."

Assmar said there are two paths being pursued toward that goal. MidAmerica Jet is taking the lead on an airline and corporate flight school.

"Another potential flight school is what could be called a mom-and-pop business that would teach the general population to fly," Assmar said. "That's how I started flying. If we could get those schools going at the airport, they would greatly increase our numbers and help in retaining the tower."

Progress also has been made in securing education partnerships.

"I've been in two meetings this week with universities about developing four-year aviation programs," Whitmer said recently. One of those is Eastern Kentucky University.

Owensboro Community & Technical College and EKU now have a 2 + 2 program that allows students to earn an associate's degree in two years at OCTC and transfer to EKU for the remaining two years to earn a bachelor's degree in an aviation program.

In the fall, Owensboro Public Schools also will start offering a four-year aviation education program in partnership with the Kentucky Institute for Aerospace Education.

Assmar also feels positive about the potential for recruiting more business at the airport.

The airport board bought two hangars from MidAmerica Jet in April for $150,000 -- the former Owensboro Aviation and Bullfrog North hangars. Last month, the board also approved spending up to $200,000 for renovations to those properties.

"I've advocated for that a long time," Assmar said. "We were lease-locked. Now, I hope we can get a couple of businesses in there." One of those could be a flight school.

One of the hangars will become more of a combined classroom and hangar space, Whitmer said.

Whitmer participated in a meeting of the Kentucky General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Tourism on June 19 that focused on the aerospace industry and the role it plays in the state's economy.

"I learned a lot at this meeting, including that about 498,000 pilots will be needed over the next 20 years," Whitmer said.

Owensboro can be part of what's happening in the state in terms of the growth of the aerospace industry, he said.

"We haven't attracted a great deal of business related to that yet," Whitmer said. "But we have the runway, the control tower and available property. We are positioned well; we just have to make it happen."

In terms of available property for economic development, the airport has two sites that are 17 acres and nine-to-10 acres east of the airfield and next to MidAmerica Airpark. On the west side is an 88-acre site adjacent to both runways with access to Kentucky 81.

Mayor Ron Payne also wants to explore the potential for a larger Kentucky National Guard presence at the airport, Whitmer said.

Payne said he hopes to get a meeting with Kentucky's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Ed Tonini, soon.

"I want to talk to him about the potential of our airport and ask him if there is anything we can do to assist them and if they have any interest in expanding their presence."

Owensboro is just beginning to see the utilization of the airport, he said.

"The airport, like so many areas in Owensboro is on a run," Payne said. "We're moving into a new era in Owensboro."

The airport board has had a Project Fund from which to pull its share of matching dollars when the facility qualified for the $1 million FAA entitlement funds. The city and county governments set up the Project Fund for capital projects about 15 years ago with bond financing primarily for the $26 million runway extension project.

Whitmer has said that fund likely will run out in 2015. The board will have to look for local matching funds from another source.

The state also has notified the airport that it will not provide any matching funds beyond this year when the terminal loan will be paid off.

Airport board members said in May that they would be talking to city and county officials about the potential for their continued help with the capital projects matching funds.

Joy Campbell, 691-7299, jcampbell@messenger-inquirer.com

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