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For downtown airport, the sky's the limit
October 21, 2011
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  • By Dick Hughes
    October 20, 2011

    Long the state’s busiest general aviation airport, the Greenville Downtown Airport is moving deliberately for future growth.
    It is broadening visibility with the flying public, promoting its place as gateway for development, marketing its own sites for aviation and non aviation businesses and creating amenities to make it more accessible to the general public.

    To showcase its facilities to the industry, next Saturday, Oct. 29, the airport hosts the first Southeast Aviation Show, a trade show of aircraft vendors that will grow over the years, its sponsor, the South Carolina Aviation Association, and the Greenville Airport Commission, believe.

    The commission has improved runways, upgraded safety features, added more small hangers, brought in a new flight school, hired a marketing director, opened a restaurant along a runway, made plans for a playground near the cafe and engaged a Realtor to lease land to aircraft and non aircraft businesses.

    “We have the busiest general aviation airport in the state, and we also want to be the nicest one in the whole Southeast,” said Joe Frasher, 54, who has been airport director for 28 years. “Everything is in top shape. We are very proud of it.”

    A $36-Millon Benefit

    The Greenville airport opened in 1928 and served as a commercial airport, as well as a general aviation center, until Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport opened in 1962 for commercial flights. During World War II, it was home to a U.S. Army glider base.

    Today it exclusively serves general aviation with more than 80,000 take offs annually. It is home base to 205 aircraft, about half of them business or corporate jets and turbo props. Its 5,400-foot runway can handle even the largest of corporate jets.

    There are 453 jobs generating a payroll of $13 million in the various businesses located at the airport. Its annual economic benefit to the city and county is estimated at $36 million.

    Frasher said airport safety is the top priority. It was the first general aviation airport to install an engineered materials barrier at the end of runways to stop an aircraft that overshoots it for any reason. For that and other safety upgrades, it won a national general aviation award.

    The system throws up a concrete and air cushion that engulfs a runaway craft and gets thicker as the plane moves into it until brought to a stop “with zero damage to the plane.”

    In 2007, the system prevented a $20-million Falcon 900 with brake failure from going over a bank and onto a road, potentially causing fatal injuries and total destruction of the plane.

    Five Minutes from Main

    Just off South Pleasantburg Road and five minutes or so from downtown Greenville and Interstate 85 and Interstate 385, the airport is believed unique in its close proximity to the center of town and the corporate and manufacturing corridors off the interstates.

    “We see our role as the front door for the corporate executives who come to Greenville looking to either place their business here or do business here,” Frasher said. “We are the first thing they see.”

    Jerry Howard, president of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said the airport’s easy access to downtown and “reasonable proximity of anything we want a client to see” has played a big role over the years in attracting new business.

    “The airport figures prominently in our marketing presentations we do all across the country,” said Howard. “We are probably the only mid-sized market that has an airport of that quality as close as it is to downtown. It is a fantastic selling point for us.”

    Surrounded as it is by the city, said Frasher, “we are doing our best to make it more friendly to the community. One of the things we did was bring on Lara Kaufman as director of public relations.”

    Developing Airport Assets

    At Kaufman’s instigation, the airport commission rehabilitated and refitted a building abandoned by a flight school and turned it into the Runway CafŽ “with a wonderful view” of planes taking off and landing. It is raising private money to build a playground for kids nearby.

    It signed a long-term lease on a building sitting on three acres with the Humane Society for its no-kill shelter and, long term, for a dog park.

    For the first time, it has hired a commercial Realtor, Earle Furman, to market seven airport sites ranging in size from 2.5 to 14 acres for lease.

    “We have some property that is aviation-ready based on where it is located and access to runways,” said Frasher. “For those, we would like to get aviation tenants or a tenant that uses aviation in their business, but the ones that have no access we are not committed to aviation development.”

    Stepping up efforts to lease property is part of the commission’s resolve to keep the airport on a solid economic footing, Frasher said.

    “We definitely want to stay self-supporting and never rely on tax revenues for the operation of the airport,” he said. “The best way to do that is continually develop and redevelop your land for aviation and non aviation uses that are appropriate at the time.”

    Not a Dime from Taxpayers

    The airport is within a special purpose district that is independent of the city and county but managed by a commission comprising two commissioners appointed each by the county and city and a fifth appointed at large.

    “The Greenville Airport Commission owns and operates the airport. It owns the land, can buy and sell land, issue bonds. But we operate in trust for the city and county.”

    The airport uses no tax money, local or federal. Except for a small match, the Federal Aviation Administration funds the cost of runway, safety improvements and some airport facilities – but not terminals – from user fees assessed on fuel and airline tickets.

    Despite the recession that cut Greenville’s traffic by 25-30 percent from 2008 levels, Frasher said, airport revenues remained stable.

    “We have been pretty lean and have not done capital improvements other than ones paid for through FAA grants, which cover 95 percent of the cost.”

    The airport staff consists of four full-time employees, including Frasher, and three part-time maintenance workers.

    With annual revenues around $900,000 and expenses of $700,000-$750,000, the commission banks around $200,000 for improvements not covered by the FAA.

    It has a reserve of a bit less than $1 million.

    Date: 2011-10-20