An aviation Tech Center

Aug. 8, 2000


SIU and the Southern Illinois Airport combine forces to create a Transportation Education Center

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

August 2000

DARBONDALE, IL - It is 10 a.m. on a hot, muggy summer day in the southernmost county in Illinois. The air conditioned office of the Dean of Applied Sciences offers an air of degreed professionalism. She and four professors are telling their story, of creating a transportation education center that unites two of Southern Illinois University's nationally recognized programs - aviation and automotive tech - under one very modern roof. It will become part of - and build on - the aviation presence SIU already has at the Southern Illinois Airport. They are also talking of what it will take to get it done - money.

The next step toward this transportation goal presents sort of a chicken and egg scenario. The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) has the project high on its radar screen, and will soon tell SIU officials whether or not they will get its funding. Public agencies such as IBHE, however, often are influenced by the level of support from industry that will benefit. In this case, officials say the target is $3 million from private donations, and they intentionally leave the impression that two major donors may be pending. But more may be needed up front, before IBHE makes its decision.

Explains Professor Elaine M. Vitello, Ph.D., dean of SIU's College of Applied Sciences and Arts, "This is an attempt to bring together related but separate transportation programs. It's been a four-year process to get us to this point, working on development of the program and selling it to the communities, the airport authority, and private companies and individuals. So far, no one has said no."

Regarding the prospects for getting the necessary industry and public funding to complete the project, Vitello says, "We work in the sunshine."

Meanwhile, the Southern Illinois Airport Authority has worked with the Illinois Department of Transportation and the FAA to create an infrastructure that is primed for the SIU development and is prepared to handle any multiplier growth.

Projects nearing completion include a $3.41 million runway extension and taxiway relocation, and $803,000 worth of parking lot and roadway improvements.

Comments airport director Gary Shafer, "Essentially, all the pavement on the airport is new or has been approved to be upgraded. We're also updating our Airport Layout Plan using GIS (Geographic Information System). We're doing an environmental assessment, and looking to add more tiedown capacity."

Shafer, who has served at the airport 21 years, 19 as airport manager, has been working with his major tenant, SIU, from the outset on the Transportation Education Center project. In fact, as part of the package, SIU traded an acre of prime airport development property for nine acres it will require for its center activities. Explains Shafer, "Of the 750 airport acres, SIU owns a critical 16 acres in the middle for the tech center."

"Our vision is that the tech center will be an education/student complex," explains SIU dean Vitello. The initial layout calls for a 182,300-square foot main building, along with auto fleet storage, a hangar to house SIU's 737 it uses for technical training, and an engine test cell facility. Total cost is estimated at $34 million.

Vitello estimates that pledges of 5 to 10 percent of that sum need to come from private industry, and companies have expressed strong interest, she says. However, as the state reviews the merits of the education complex, she adds, it will be influenced by the commitment of those industries it stands to benefit.

She also says this is an opportunity for two transportation segments, automotive and aviation, to build off the synergies between them. In particular, this could prove beneficial in helping meet labor shortages in two industries being significantly influenced by changing technologies while losing new people to the computer industry.

And, she points out, it's an opportunity to build on the reputation SIU has established in both the automotive and aviation industries.

Shafer says that the airport's commitment for the project was an initial $2 million in infrastructure improvements to support the complex, with support coming from IDOT and an Illinois 1st development program.

Says Shafer of the center, "It cements the relationship between the university and the airport - a relationship established in 1960. Also, we see considerable development and subsequent revenue potential tied to it. And, there's the potential for industry seminars and conferences and for a new auditorium on the site."

Southern Illinois University already generates some $400,000 per year in revenues for the airport. It operates 39 of the 106 based aircraft, according to Shafer, and purchases fuel from the airport on a cost-plus basis. The university services its fleet.

The airport currently operates in the red, with an annual operating budget of some $600,000, of which some 20 percent comes from a property tax subsidy, says Shafer. For the Southern Illinois Airport, the education center offers more potential for economic development and, thus, revenues, than any effort proposed to date, says Shafer.

Other airport revenues are generated from FBO services and flight training, both operated by the airport. "The history of the airport is that it has always been competitive," explains Shafer, "but we weren't happy with the level of performance of the private providers we had. However, we've never intended to stay in those businesses. We've been consolidating all the services so that we'll be able to offer a package to private enterprise. We should be offering it to the marketplace in about six months."

An annual motocross race, the 2001 state aerobatic championships, and a pending Airstream trailer annual convention on the airport grounds are a few of Shafer's revenue pursuits. (He estimates the Airstream convention would have an economic impact of $5 million.)

The airport authority recently commissioned a commercial air service study with Edwards & Kelcey (see sidebar), which indicates commercial air service is not a practical goal for the Carbondale airport today.

Says Shafer, "We did the study to satisfy the question of the community of whether or not air service is something we should be spending our time pursuing. The preliminary report indicates the numbers aren't there to make a substantial case to the airlines. It can keep us from being distracted from our intent - to create a strategic development plan to get back to highly defining what it is we can do with this airport in the future."

For This Airport, Air Service Is Not the Answer
A two-hour drive southeast of St. Louis, the Southern Illinois Airport lies nestled in the rolling hills that mark the beginning of the Southern U.S. It is an agricultural area, dotted with prisons. It is not that the economic boom of the 1990s skipped Carbondale, IL; those here simply chose not to participate as aggressively. As airport manager Gary Shafer looks to develop his facility, he knows commercial air service will not be the catalyst.

Robin Lee Monroe, vice president of Edwards & Kelcey in Baltimore, an air service consulting firm, was hired to analyze the potential for commercial carrier service into the Southern Illinois Airport. Her conclusion: commercial air service is not a practical pursuit, even with the passenger base created by nearby Southern Illinois University - the major tenant of the airport.

Explains Monroe, "We determined there was no way they were going to attract air service. But that didn't mean other economic development wasn't feasible. We wanted to leave them with something, and that was an economic development strategy.

"What they need is a long-term strategic development plan with SIU as the anchor." That, in fact, is the goal of the Transportation Education Center.

According to Monroe, other small communities such as Carbondale face similarly negative prospects for ongoing commercial air service to their communities. It is the way of a changing market, she says.

"What's happening in small communities, because of highway and other transportation funding, airports are competing with other forms of transport - for example, four-lane highways. In Carbondale and Jackson County, we found that, overwhelmingly, people weren't averse to traveling to other airports like St. Louis.

"And the airline industry is cutting back on 19-seat aircraft. It's where the future is going. The market doesn't accept those aircraft anymore. The pilots aren't available - they're moving up; they're expensive to operate; and reliability is a question in the mind of the passenger," she says.

This greatly raises the bar for minimum air service to small communities, she adds.

Also, in her report to the Southern Illinois Airport, Monroe says that the abolition of the O'Hare High Density Rule will eliminate the Midwests' privileged access to Chicago. In time, she says, business principles will take over and regional jets and larger aircraft will fill those slots, putting even more pressure on smaller markets wanting service to Chicago and other major hubs.

For Information ... Anyone interested in getting more information about the SIU technical center project should contact Professor Elaine M. Vitello, Ph.D., dean, SIU College of Applied Sciences & Arts, at [email protected] or (618) 453-8840.