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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 01:54 pm

The sky’s the limit

Airports are cash cows, except for Grandpa’s Farm


A $600,000 study commissioned by the state Department of Transportation found that the state’s airports generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

As the nation hurtles toward a fiscal cliff, the Illinois Department of Transportation has released a study showing that airports are economic catalysts.

The study’s authors, it seems, have never seen an airport that they did not like. From O’Hare International in Chicago to Grandpa’s Farm just outside Mendota in LaSalle County, airports large and small are cash machines, according to the study. Add it all up, and the state’s 116 public airports support 337,400 jobs while generating nearly $41 billion in economic activity.

“Aviation is an integral part of the world’s economy,” wrote the consultants at the beginning of the study that includes multipliers such as wages paid to waiters who don’t come near airports but provide service to people who either fly or work at airports. “Countries with robust air transportation systems benefit from the efficiencies that air travel provides.”

In Springfield, the consultant figures that the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport generates $563.6 million annually while supporting 4,797 jobs. In terms of dollars generated, the airport ranks fourth in the state, behind Rockford, O’Hare and Chicago Midway, according to the study prepared by CDM Smith, an Ohio firm, with help from Applied Real Estate Analysis, Hanson Professional Services and Crawford, Murphy and Tilly. Hanson Professional Services and Crawford, Murphy and Tilly are both Springfield-based engineering firms.

It’s a big step up from 2000, the last time IDOT paid a different consultant to measure economic impacts at airports. Back then, the state figured that the Springfield airport was generating slightly less than $200 million, less than half of what it is today, even with fewer flights now.

Mark Hanna, airport executive director, professes himself pleasantly surprised at the latest numbers.

“When I talked to officials from IDOT, they were very surprised by how high we ranked,” Hanna said. “We knew there was a significant impact. … The thing that was really surprising was the value that the facility in its entirety returns back to the community and the comparison with other facilities.”

The consultant found that capital improvement programs at Springfield’s airport employed 593 people with an economic impact of $112 million, second only to O’Hare. Hanna could not say exactly what explains such a high level of construction spending, but he noted that some hangars have been built, taxiways have been upgraded and improvements have been made to HVAC systems. The total might also have included money spent on road improvements and at the Air National Guard base, he said.

“A lot of little things add up,” Hanna said.

Noting that the airport did not hire the consultant, who was paid with federal and state funds, Hanna said that he doesn’t question the study’s findings.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Hanna said. “No one is arguing with the methodology – the methodology is the industry standard. As long as the same methodology is applied to every facility, this is the best apples-to-apples comparison.”

The $600,000 study has no purpose other than to measure the economic impact of airports, which is a worthwhile goal, according to Mike Claffey, IDOT spokesman. Claffey said that the federal government paid 95 percent of the costs and that the state paid less than $30,000. Other states have done similar studies, he said.

“This study highlights the important economic contributions that Illinois realizes from its airports by quantifying employment, payroll and total economic activity associated with these airports,” Claffey wrote in an email. “The study helps us determine the relative return on investment and whether dollars are spent wisely.”

At Grandpa’s Farm near Mendota in LaSalle County, Robert Krenz, Jr., airport manager, said he’s not sure how the state figured that the airport named for his grandfather’s farm generates more than $120,000 in economic activity and keeps two people employed.  

“I am, primarily, the sole proprietor here,” Krenz said. “The former employee is an ex-wife. As far as the economics of this whole thing, in the last two years, I would say the sole proprietor didn’t make very much money. Right now, we’re going on a wing and a prayer, so to speak.”

Grandpa’s Farm, the largest grass airport open to the public in Illinois, has two outhouses but no radio tower, restaurant or refueling facilities. Krenz says that there is a good Mexican restaurant in town and he knows a guy with a fuel truck if you call ahead.

The 14 airplanes based at Grandpa’s Farm bring in a gross annual income of about $1,000 apiece and are used mostly for recreation by farmers and small business owners, Krenz said.

“Instead of spending their money on a shrink, they want to go out and fly and see how blue and pretty things look from 3,000 feet,” Krenz said.

Landing fees are $3, but Krenz says that he hasn’t bothered collecting one in a quarter century. He also rents excavation equipment stored at the airport.

“Do I need an airport to do that?” Krenz said. “Absolutely not.”

Krenz once plowed the runway after winter storms but no longer, due to the cost of fuel. Summers are hard enough.

“We’ve got 22 acres of grass here to mow,” he says.

Krenz says he doesn’t have much use for IDOT’s aeronautical division that commissioned the study but has not so much as paid for a windsock at Grandpa’s Farm. The airfield, he says, has two outhouses because an IDOT inspector once declared the original outhouse inadequate for public needs, and so he built a new one with brick, which he declares a fine place to be in event of tornado. But the brick outhouse didn’t satisfy the inspector, who complained that the toilet seat would not stay down.

“He said he wanted to sit down in the outhouse,” Krenz recalls. “I told him, ‘I always figured you did.’”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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