A New Capital Reliever
Stafford County, VA, prepares to add a corporate airport as its latest economic development tool
By By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
STAFFORD COUNTY, VA — One year from now, officials in this community some 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., will open an airport. Central to the creation of this GA/corporate facility is an economic development initiative to build off the phenomenal growth of the Virginia suburbs that has continued since the 1980s. When it opens on time, the airport will come in under budget and debt-free.
The airport has been on FAA’s and local radar scopes since the 1970s, when it was determined that there would be a need for another reliever to Dulles and Reagan National Airports. Then, Stafford County was still seen as rural and remote to the nation’s capital.
Growth has brought the capital to the county. By the mid-80s, the idea for the airport resurfaced and in 1990 a seven-member airport commission was formed to begin to take a serious look at the initiative.
James A. Lewis is a local businessman who owns Lewis Insurance Associates in Stafford. He was one of the original commission members and still serves on what is today the Stafford Regional Airport Authority.
"We went through a very turbulent time in the county because a lot of people didn’t want an airport, didn’t see the benefit of it," Lewis recalls. "A lot of that is changing now; people are seeing the benefit of the economic development end of it.
"There are always people who resist any type of change. I moved here in 1969 and we had bad roads, bad schools, no water, no sewer. We had a terrible (county) Board of Supervisors. Now, we’ve got the best schools in the area; we’ve got water and sewer; we don’t have any gravel roads anymore. And we’ve got a tremendous Board of Supervisors. We’ve got a top bond rating whereas before we couldn’t even borrow money. And we’re ruining the quality of life here?"
To offset initial opposition and to gain the local support required to spur federal funding, the commission set out on an educational road show, according to Lewis. In time, the initiative gained business and civic support in the region.
Adjacent Prince William County and the city of Fredericksburg signed on with their support, and gained seats on the commission/authority. On the authority, Stafford County has four seats; Prince William two; and Fredericksburg one.
Lewis explains that officials in Prince William County immediately saw the benefits of a new reliever after it had studied building one of its own to replace a private airfield which had been bought up by developers. The D.C. suburbs, however, by that time had reached into the area, making land acquisition prohibitively expensive, says Lewis.
"The site was at $140 million when they stopped studying it because it was so expensive. So, when they heard we were putting one in at this end of the county, they jumped at the opportunity to participate."
IDENTIFYING, BUYING THE SITE
Two other sites had also received serious consideration before being eliminated for environmental reasons and due to their proximity further away from the capital, says Lewis.
"This is designed to relieve Dulles and National," says Lewis, "and if we got too far away it became a general aviation airport. Funding was immediately available for a reliever airport, but for a new general aviation airport we had to get on a waiting list which at that time was 12 years. So that was another factor for choosing this site.
"But we chose this site not solely for that particular reason, but primarily because we could buy a large amount of acreage."
Lewis explains that the primary investment to date by the governing agencies, who split all costs based on representation on the authority, has been for administrative purposes. It lives up to the pledge originally made by the commission that taxpayers’ dollars would not fund construction of the airport.
Says Lewis, "The way we did that is the county, when they rezoned all this property for commercial development, had the developers set aside 60 acres for the airport. The airport commission had to buy that property from the county, and the county turned around and gave back that money to the authority and that was our match for the other funds.
"So that property is actually our seed money and it’s allowed us to build this airport without using taxpayer money. The developer is really the guy who footed that portion of the bill, which was very smart on the part of the Board of Supervisors. Naturally, the developer’s very happy because he owns a lot of the land around it."
In all, the airport property comprises some 550 acres of land which carried a price tag of $9 million. The first phase of the airport project, which will bring it online in fall of 2001, is estimated at $35 million — short of the original $42 million projections, according to Lewis. Funding has been 90 percent federal; 8 percent state; and 2 percent local.
When opened, the airport will feature a 5,000-foot runway with parallel taxiway, a GPS navigation system, and some 25 acres of paved ramp space for aircraft. It lies just off Interstate 95 and is slated to have an adjacent on-ramp by next year. Zoning is in place to ensure compatible, non-threatening land development to the east and west.
Campbell & Paris Engineers, a consulting firm based in Chantilly, VA, has been involved with the airport project since the beginning, and was the design firm for the field. Cindi Martin, director of aviation services for Campbell & Paris, serves as the on-site business and airport manager.
She has been developing the airport’s rules and regulations, minimum standards, and rates and charges, with guidance from the authority, which had visited multiple airports in the region. Based on those visits, the authority determined it would own and control the sole fuel farm at the airport, though an FBO tenant may operate it under contract. It also determined it would hire its own airport manager rather than contract that service out. Explains Martin, "On some of their trips the authority came across a few airports that were managed by the FBOs. They felt that was anti-competitive."
Another ’lesson learned,’ according to officials, was that they shouldn’t expect all things of all service providers. Explains Martin, "The authority is sensitive to the FBO’s business development and that was considered when we developed the minimum standards. Instead of giving them a laundry list of services that they had to maintain on the field, there are some options. For instance, if they choose to have a flight school they don’t have to do air charter, or vice versa. There’s some flexibility to help them increase their margins. It also increases the opportunities for other applicants to come in here."
Requests for proposals are now being solicited for airport tenants. Martin says a conservative estimate of activity in the first three years is one FBO, another service provider, and some 40 based aircraft. "That’s a worst-case scenario," she says.
Martin says she currently has about a dozen strong prospects who have expressed an interest in operating at Stafford.
"One of the beautiful things is the airport will open with zero debt," she says. "We’re not trying to recoup debt coverage as part of our rates and charges. We’ll be competitive."