Saturday, January 28, 2017

Expectations growing as Piedmont Triad International Airport (KGSO) readies new site

GREENSBORO — The imposing Caterpillar dump truck could have flattened Kevin Baker’s small Dodge sport utility vehicle with hardly a bump for the truck’s driver.

But Baker, the executive director of Piedmont Triad International Airport, knows how to thread these acres like the proud owner of a new homesite. And he slipped quickly past the towering truck on the muddy road.

PTI, which hosted North Carolina’s first passenger service as Lindley Field in 1930, has become a midsize airport, with 847,000 passengers in 2016 and 146.3 million pounds of cargo.

But this land is the airport’s future.

Baker was driving through a network of roads on what is becoming a unique economic development site in the state, if not the nation: about 1,000 undeveloped acres with direct access to a thriving commercial and passenger airport’s runways.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is putting the final touches on a bridge that will cross the new Interstate 73 and connect the airport’s western runway to this land. And companies that use that land will be members of an exclusive group in the Triad — only companies that need direct access to a runway.

Baker reaches a muddy hill that overlooks the bridge, nothing but a sturdy concrete square at the moment that crosses the rough dirt lanes of this highway. Hills at either end of the bridge will be plowed down as the airport builds its 2,000-foot taxiway, likely when a major company comes to the development site. Baker said he hopes the hill on which he has parked will be graded soon for a major aerospace employer.

This 280-foot bridge across the roadbed is capable of handling a jumbo jet as cars pass below through more than 200 feet of concrete box construction.

The airport had known for years that the state DOT was planning to build a section of I-73 north through Guilford County, connecting on the west of the airport with N.C. 68 and eventually heading through Rockingham County, to the north.

Once builders eliminate the segment of Bryan Boulevard to the west of the airport, only one road will separate the western runway from the new development land — I-73.

The I-73 segment near the airport is expected to be opened later this year.

With that plan in mind, the airport bought hundreds of acres, including a golf course, for future development.

But it couldn’t build a taxiway from its runways to that land until the DOT built a new road — and a bridge that is large and flat enough to hold airliners rolling across that four-lane road.

So three years ago Baker and members of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority board of directors persuaded the DOT to begin building the bridge early to match the road schedule.

Airport officials have been busy since construction began in 2014, planning the future of its land.

The airport authority also has gone through the tedious work of finishing an environmental impact statement required by the Federal Aviation Administration before the first prospect can look at developing the land.

And to anticipate every possibility from small employers to a major aircraft manufacturer with thousands of workers, the authority has drawn up 75 potential development plans. That’s right — 75.

“We’re in a really good position for development of a project of any size,” Baker said. “It’s entirely and completely flexible. It’s important when a prospect comes along we have a game plan in place.”

Getting the environmental impact study and the bridge out of the way now before the interstate is finished makes the property available far sooner than it would have been if airport officials had waited.

“If you wait until a project comes along, you’ve just added two years. If you’ve got to design and build a taxiway, you’re adding years,” he said.

“I don’t know that there’s another fully functional airport that has a similar piece of property ready for development,” said Brent Christensen, the president and chief executive officer of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, the city’s chief economic recruitment group.

Baker said the companies most appropriate for the airport land will fall into three primary categories: Those that repair and overhaul airplanes, those that build airplanes and those that make major components for aircraft.

“What we’re really looking at is companies that really need to be on the airfield,” Christensen said. “That’s a little bit more of a bull’s-eye than just having to hit the target.”

PTI already has two major aerospace companies that have expanded rapidly and, Baker said, airport officials want to be sure they have plenty of room because space is getting tight on the airport’s east side. That east side is the home of Honda Aircraft and HAECO Americas, the biggest employers at the airport. To the north, FedEx Express employs about 500 people.

HAECO, an aviation maintenance and overhaul company, is building a fifth hangar. After that is finished, the company will occupy 120 acres, with only about 20 acres left for expansion.

Honda Aircraft occupies 130 acres, with 50 acres left for expansion.

Because the airport owns and leases that land to those companies, it’s crucial to have more land available if those companies should want to expand further, Baker said.

But in a competitive market, how many other companies seriously are looking for airport property?

Christensen said that Honda has proven that companies are buying business jets.

Honda Aircraft has spent the past 10 years developing and bringing to production its $4.5 million jet, which seats up to seven people. Honda employs more than 1,700 people, according to 2015 figures, in its research and development, maintenance and production operations at its PTI world headquarters.

And, Christensen said, military aircraft companies and others are expanding their aerospace operations. In the future, he said, Greensboro may have its own specialized representative to meet with companies in the aerospace industry.

Not all aerospace companies need an airport, of course. GE Honda Aero Engines, for example, makes engines for the HondaJet in Burlington, then trucks them to the manufacturing plant at the airport.

But the airport already is benefiting from marquee names in aerospace. Such names as Honda, HAECO, FedEx Express — which operates an air cargo center — and Cessna — with a large service center — give the airport a high profile in the aerospace industry.

“Those brands certainly speak volumes in the marketplace about our area of North Carolina,” Christensen said.

Baker, already confident that this plan will succeed, is not one for self-congratulation. He said he is worried his supply of land will run out. He said it’s time to start searching for the next available land near the airport.

“That’s what’s starting to keep me awake at night,” Baker said. “What comes after the 1,000 acres?”

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