Downtown Rebound: After 75 years, St. Louis Downtown Airport finally approaches its potential

Oct. 8, 2004

Cover Story

Downtown Rebound

After 75 years, St. Louis Downtown Airport finally approaches its potential

By John F. Infanger

October 2004

SAUGET, IL — In 2000, Robert L. McDaniel returned to theairport where he soloed at age 16 and worked fueling aircraft — theSt. Louis Downtown Airport, which sits within line of sight of downtownSt. Louis and its famed Gateway Arch. Much had not changed, he recalls,but he, the Bi- State Development Agency which owns the airport, and various tenants are seeing to it that the facility no longer is static.

Robert L. McDaniel, director, St. Louis Downtown Airport

Comments the 53-year old McDaniel, “There’s really some magic to being back here. There are still aircraft owners and pilots in T-hangars whose planes I gassed as a kid. They still think of me as the kid.

“I had to come into the airport like I didn’t know anything and learn the airport from scratch.

“It’s been fun. The timing has been fantastic because this airport is showing tremendous signs of growth. I think we’re on the verge of a whole new era.”

McDaniel even earned his commercial pilot’s license and degree in Aeronautical Administration from Parks College of St. Louis University, which still has its flight department with 29 aircraft and some 250 students in the spring and fall.

Retired Colonel McDaniel spent 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, flying T-38s and C-141s before ending his tenure by setting up airport operations at locations such as Mogadishu, Somalia. Prior to returning home to run St. Louis Downtown, he served as director of the Texarkana (AR) Regional Airport.

A History Like Few Others
Many airports in the nation can boast that they had famous aviators visit their facilities over time — Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, among others. However, Jimmy Doolittle almost died here, crashing his plane during an air show in the 1930s. Parks College, which has fed thousands of new pilots into the aviation system, was founded here, although the main campus is now at St. Louis University. And McDonnell-Douglas Corporation tested the Gemini space capsule design at the airport, using a large water reservoir.

It was founded in 1929 as the Curtiss-Steinberg Airport by a business consortium led by St. Louis financier Mark Steinberg and the Curtiss Wright aircraft manufacturing firm. In time, Oliver Parks, who founded the college in 1927, became a partner and eventually the owner of the facility, which was then renamed Curtiss-Parks Airport.

In 1959, however, Parks decided to close the airport and sought to develop houses on the property. Six years later, the Bi-State Development Agency, which operates the region’s mass transit system, bought the airport and reopened it as the Bi-State Parks Airport. In recent times the emphasis regarding the name has been to tie it to its proximity to downtown St. Louis, just a few miles to the west across the Mississippi River.

Ironically, recalls McDaniel, while the purchase by Bi-State saved the airport from residential development, it also straddled his predecessors with a debtload that made it very difficult to invest in much else than bond payments.

“The Bi-State, in many ways, was the best thing that happened to the airport and the worst thing. The agency saved the airport, reopened it, and made an investment in the infrastructure to bring it up to the standards of the time.

“But once that initial investment was made, there was this giant price tag hanging over our heads. Every nickel that was made went into paying off that bond debt. So, there was very little infrastructure or marketing investment made at the airport for about the next 15-20 years.” The bond has since been retired.

Today, the St. Louis Downtown Airport has some 26 tenant companies which employ about 1,000 people. The economic impact of the airport is estimated at $200 million, a number which McDaniel and others here expect to continue to grow.

Impact of Midcoast
The airport began to gain some momentum in the 1980s, according to McDaniel, and its growth since that time, particularly within the past ten years, has been directly tied to investment by tenants. For example, Ideal Aviation recently moved to a new FBO terminal in a more central location, which McDaniel says has had a large impact in rising fuel flows for the airport, and what he calls “new business.” [Fuel volumes reached two million gallons for FY04, ending June 30th, the highest level ever, according to officials.]

The greatest impact, however, has come from Midcoast Aviation, which for years was headquartered at Lambert St. Louis International and had locations in Ft. Lauderdale and Little Rock. According to vice chairman Gary Driggers, the company decided to consolidate its operations in its original city and headquarter here, with smaller facilities at Lambert and nearby Spirit airports.

Explains McDaniel, “Midcoast is probably the best thing that ever happened to this airport in recent years. It helped us to develop an entire side of the airport.”

Says Midcoast’s Driggers, “When Bob came on board, the dynamics here changed. He has come in here and decided to really do something with this airport.

“We also got a new CEO [Larry Solci] of the Bi-State Development Agency a few years ago who was a young retiree of Bombardier. While his background there was in rail, he knew all the upper management there and loved the aviation business. Larry wants to do what he can to make the airport better.”

Midcoast, which is a Bombardier Service Facility, occupies 400,000 square feet of facilities here, and Driggers says that’s about 100,000 less than he needs. Midcoast does everything from completion of green airplanes to modifications, repair, interior — the gamut, including FBO services. It is currently constructing a $5 million “down-draft” paint facility, which is expected to open in October. All of Midcoast’s hangars are full.

Says Driggers, “People who say the business isn’t back aren’t looking real close. It’s back; it’s been solid like a rock for us.”

Future Development
McDaniel sees his role as director as one that facilitates growth, not one that competes with the tenants. “We don’t handle fuel; store fuel; or sell fuel. All we do is put out our hand and say pay us our fuel flowage fee [9 cents].”

It is the relationship building that is a central theme among officials here, with the airport focused on maintaining the infrastructure and creating an environment that attracts new business.

Regarding infrastructure, McDaniel says his top priorities are building a new control tower and extending his parallel runway to 5,200 feet. The “temporary” tower, built in 1973, continues to be operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and is expected to be replaced in 2005, pending Congressional funding. FAA has invested $900,000 to date for siting and design of it.

The airport has a crosswind runway of 2,800 feet and parallel runways of 7001 and 3,800 feet. The primary runway is nearing a rehabilitation period that will include an overlay and strengthening. However, explains McDaniel, if he is forced to close the main runway for repairs, his corporate jet traffic will have to divert, something he does not want to see happen. The airport currently logs more than 700,000 operations annually, according to FAA.

Regarding business development, McDaniel likes to think of his department as an “incubator” for new companies, and he in fact has an empty office space in the airport administration building that he uses for just that purpose.

“We helped two guys start a charter firm in it,” he recalls, “and now they’re into charter, aircraft management, a pilot shop, aircraft rental, a flight school, and maintenance. All because we were able to get them started in a little office and work cooperatively with them. I’m now anxious for another person for our incubator.”

He points to recent negotiations with Midcoast as an example of an airport looking at what it can bring to the table to help the tenant succeed. With the airport targeting any surplus dollars for infrastructure, it did not want to participate in helping build a ramp extension for Midcoast’s new paint shop. Instead, the FBO paid for it and the airport issued a 25-year lease, instead of the typical 20.

GIS: A Way To Map for the Future

St. Louis Downtown Airport recently updated its airportlayout plan (ALP), and in the process incorporated GIS to get a more accurate read on the property it maintains. GIS brings with it a variety of benefits, says director Robert McDaniel.

The website describes Geographic Information Systems the following way: “Simply put, a GIS combines layers of information about a place to give you a better understanding of that place. What layers of information you combine depends on your purpose — finding the best location for a new store, analyzing environmental damage, viewing similar crimes in a city to detect a pattern, and so on.”

For an airport, the “purpose” is to get a firm handle on property dimensions and locations, and integrate that information with other data such as lease terms, rates and charges, etc.

Explains McDaniel, “We are at about the 95 percent level with out GIS database. When we get the property section done, we’ll be able to click on a building, find the address, who’s in it, how long the lease is good for, and if there’s a fuel spill we’ll know what drainage system it ties into. It’s just going to work wonders for us.

“I do a lot of what-iffing with potential tenants. Now I can pull up a piece of property, give them two or three printouts, the utility locations, etc. What took me a couple of days previously to prepare I can get for them now while they wait.

“Of course, it’s going to take a very dedicated effort on our part to keep it accurate and up to date.”

Midcoast also recently moved into a renovated main terminal building that once housed the airport administration. The airport volunteered to vacate the building, which sits next to Midcoast, and purchased a vacant off-airport office building. The terminal now houses Midcoast’s line services and an expanded restaurant with meeting facilities.

Comments Driggers, “The leases are written in a user-friendly style. All the little gotcha stuff isn’t in there because there’s no gotcha mentality. They are just trying to develop the airport.”