Keep Pushing the Envelope

Feb. 17, 2010
For decades a quiet GA airport, Denton has been redefined, and is being redefined again

DENTON, TX — The reshaping of the Denton Airport into one that serves both business and general aviation, while serving as a major catalyst for economic development as the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex spreads north, has been the major focus for the past fives years here. According to airport manager Quentin Hix, he is confident the next five years will bring similar investment and growth on a par or exceeding that period. It’s a tall job; but what has been achieved to date by Hix and his predecessors and city hall is a transformation of an airport — with planning. The airport is now preparing to open up more acreage for development while also moving to set itself apart from city coffers.

To the GA light aircraft pilot who enjoys seeing his/her airport grow while not forgetting GA, Denton might seem to be on the right track. Says Hix, “We do serve individual general aviation pilots; have since the inception of Denton Airport in the early 1940s. But over the past six years, there has been a significant investment at this airport by the aviation industry. They’re very successful; they have very aggressive business plans. We’ve made major public infrastructure improvements to provide the level of service to keep them growing, and to attract other aviation businesses here.

“We’ll always have as an element of our operation service to individual private pilots. But the real growth and the development of the airport as an economic engine for the city is associated with our aviation industry development.”

Thus, they have a plan, which includes ongoing infrastructure improvements to not only open up new acreage for development, but to help differentiate airfield activity as well.

Explains Hix, “We’re in an excellent area because most of the area to the east of us, between the airport and the Interstate [35], is zoned industrial. To the west of us it is very sparcely developed. It will develop significantly, especially after the soft economy heats up a bit, with typical residential/commercial type development. Loop 288 will come across just to the west of us.

“We have had in place for a number of years an airport compatibility land use district. Landowners and potential developers all understand that there are restrictions on what can be built up against the airport.”

According to Hix, during the past six years some $24 million has been invested at the Denton Airport, most of it FAA money via the Texas State Block Grant program. The director estimates that today the airport’s 40-plus businesses employ some 300 employees.

The airport, operated by the city, today generates enough revenue to cover its costs, to the point that Hix has set a goal of making it financially independent as an Enterprise Fund (see sidebar). Being topographically advantaged, it also sits on natural gas wells that will play a significant role in future infrastructure development.

“The gas money goes into a restricted gas well fund that the council has established a policy of using for only one-time capital expenditures,” explains Hix. “Since these new wells came online last August — seven of the eleven — total revenues we’ve brought in are well over $5 million. They’ll continue to accumulate significantly in the first couple of years, and will continue to generate revenue into the gas well fund until at least 22 years into the future.” He emphasizes that all expenditures from the fund will be directed to the airport.

“If we invest wisely in revenue-generating development, then we’ll produce operating revenue as well as an investment fund.”

Orchestrating development
Hix, 61, relates that his experience to date puts him in a good position to oversee the near-term future of the Denton Airport. He previously worked for the City of Denton, served in city administration and was a city manager elsewhere, and later pursued his Masters of Public Administration at the University of North Texas, which sits a few miles away.

In his current position one year, Hix says this is where he wanted to be and that his history of working with cities, along with being with Lone Star Gas through which he worked with cities as well, gave him a background that fits with what the city seeks to do with its airport.

Says Hix, “So my entire career was focused either directly or indirectly in local government administration. I had continued to move further away from direct local government involvement, and that’s what I wanted to do with the balance of my career.

“It was definitely a thought-out decision to bring me into this position. The reason is, what we’re faced with here is really a 734-acre aviation industrial park — happens to be a runway here.
“The real growth and the development of the airport as an economic engine for the city is associated with our aviation industry development.

“That means a lot of infrastructure improvements. My background with Lone Star Gas in community services was economic development. As a public administrator I worked in the city organization, in a department of the city. And I’ve had experience working with tenants. We do ground leases, and then our tenants make the investment in the vertical construction of hangars or business facilities.

“The responsibilities of the airport deal a lot with areas that are similar to city management.”

Much of that background will be focused on future infrastructure improvements and marketing the airport to industry. To wit, Hix and the airport have been promoting the facility’s capabilities to the audience at the annual National Business Aviation Association convention. Observes Hix, “I attended my first NBAA this past year and I’ll tell you what I did discover. The way we participate is through our local development organization, which is coordinated with the North Texas Commission. We go up there with some other general aviation airports, all working through the North Texas Commission.

“I realized that our major aviation industry here on the airport was represented there as vendors. There were hundreds of suppliers, even this year, of goods and services that were courting our industries to become vendors to them. Well, out of that same group, there may be some that need to expand their businesses right here. It’s a significant economic development opportunity.”

Expanding the footprint
Hix relates that his biggest challenge at present is to get through the immediate improvements, which he says will be a “tremendous step forward”, not only in improving the safety and security of the airport, but it will afford the airport the opportunity to market the next level of service.

Explains Hix, “The challenge is managing all that infrastructure improvement. We along with other general aviation airports are faced with the challenge of increased federal regulation. TSA [Transportation Security Administration] is focusing on security at general aviation airports. That’s going to be a huge challenge to us.

“It’s one of those things where the more you jump up and down and say ‘Hey, here we are’ the more you’re recognized as a place that could become a poster child for new regulations. “

One of the immediate improvements is the installation of a gated perimeter security fence, which Hix sees as critical to attracting higher end corporate-related companies and flight activity. It’s also a step toward attempting to get ahead of possible TSA scrutiny in the future.

Says Hix, “It’s to try and get ahead of the curve, yes. But it’s more than trying to get ahead of anticipated regulations; security is one of our major missions of service here. Look around this airport and you can see hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. Part of what we feel obligated to provide is security; safety of operations; and unprecedented service to our general aviation users, be they individual pilots or corporate airplanes.”

The airport has constructed a parallel taxiway to facilitate access, and is in the process of a 2,035-foot taxiway extension, which will open up an additional 34 acres for hangar and business development.

The airport currently has the North American center for Piaggio aircraft. The Italian manufacturer sends its green aircraft here to be completed for delivery via the Jet Works Air Center. The latter is the sister company of Business Air, a full-service fixed base operation. The U.S. Aviation Group is in the process of constructing the second full-service FBO on the airfield.

Despite the economic slowdown of the past two years, Denton is forging ahead. Says Hix, “Unquestionably, the soft economy has probably kept some major aviation industry from making moves. That’s simply given us an opportunity to revise our business plan, which we’re in the process of doing. We work very closely with the economic development group locally.

“In the immediate plans we plan to build an access road around the south up to the west side, so we can begin development. We’ll have access that we can promote. The parallel runway, while the actual design has not been finally determined, can be either a parallel runway with minimum separation … or we can move it out to the perimeter and develop between the two runways. We’ve got all of our options open to us at this point.”