Sunday, April 16, 2017

Will Lehigh Valley International Airport (KABE) need more land in the future?



Can Lehigh Valley International Airport attract 1 million passengers a year again? Or does its future rely on becoming a bustling air cargo hub for Amazon? Should it jump into the region's distribution center craze by building warehouses on the airfield? 

Those are among the questions airport officials hope to answer as they embark on a yearlong public process to map out the airport's next 25 years.

One thing that's certain: They probably won't be seizing private land to expand, a move during a previous master plan process that plunged the airport authority into a two-decade court battle costing it more than $30 million.

"It's a safe bet we won't be stripping any new runways across private property," said J. Michael Dowd, chairman of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, referring to a 1994 master plan calling for a runway on private land. "But we do have a chance here to vision the future and take advantage of some very interesting opportunities. This is pretty important."

The authority started building a new master plan for the 2,700-acre airport six months ago. The public's role starts Thursday during an open house, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the main terminal, where people may weigh in on airport issues. It will be the first of several public meetings to build, and ultimately, unveil the master plan.

Over the next year, officials will map out how they expect passenger counts to grow, how big air cargo will be, which land should be sold, and how the airport footprint generally should look in 25 years.

It's a process that's done about every 10 years, but this one is of particular importance because LVIA appears to on the doorstep of major transition. LVIA is one of 11 airports nationwide being used by Amazon for air cargo flights, and with e-commerce predicted to increase, it has a chance to make millions of dollars a year receiving packages that can be trucked throughout the Northeast. What started as one Amazon flight a day in 2015 is now five and that is expected to grow, especially during the Christmas season.

Airport officials have to determine how lucrative that can be and how much they're willing to invest to make it grow.

That is of great concern to Scott Haire, who grew up in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, where planes regularly flew over his home. He'll be there Thursday because he's wondering how the airport's decisions could affect whether his parents are able to sell their home next year.

"If these Amazon flights keep increasing, is that going to lower the value of their home?" Haire said. "These kind of decisions affect a lot of people."

Airport officials must also determine how much more land they're willing to sell and what development should be on that land, or whether they should keep the land and develop it themselves. They've already sold 260 acres, have another 155 acres under agreement and are seeking bidders for 300 acres.

Whether the authority sells or develops the land, a question arises of how many warehouses should be built, and what type of traffic and congestion issues they could cause.

That issue will bring Robert Nappa to the open house. Nappa lives in a 197-year-old farmhouse in Allen Township, where a FedEx Ground plant is under construction and several other warehouses are planned.

"I'm not a guy who doesn't want this in my backyard. My backyard is irrelevant," Nappa said. "This is about the overall character of the Lehigh Valley. These massive facilities should be built near [Interstate] 78, not in a cornfield in Allen Township."

Authority Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. said the future is wide open to LVIA. That's a departure from five years ago, when the airport was so cash-strapped that it had to cut services and lay off staff. That financial stress actually dated to a master plan process in 1994, when officials laid out a new airport map that showed a third runway across development land in Allen and East Allen townships. Developers WBF Associates sued, claiming the airport's mere mention of the runway wrecked their plans for a golf course community. After 15 years in court, the authority lost a $26 million judgment and spent more than $4 million in attorney fees.

Everett won't repeat that mistake, but said the airport will have to plan for expected growth in both passenger and air cargo traffic in the coming years.

"We know things are changing quickly," Everett said. "E-commerce will be a bigger factor in travel, and in terms of passengers, there's more competition than in the past because every airport has low-cost providers. There's a lot to consider."

The best news, Dowd said, is the airport doesn't have to mortgage the future for short-term gain. Since paying off the court debt last year, the authority has money in the bank and a financial forecast that will allow it to embark on capital projects that can benefit the airport in the longer term.

"We're not in survival mode anymore," Dowd said. "We have a chance to look at the future as a great opportunity. It's all before us. We can have a great impact on the Lehigh Valley if we do this right."

Story and video:  http://www.mcall.com

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