About 10 miles outside Chillicothe is a place where worlds collide between rural America and dignitaries, celebrities, Fortune 500 companies and military training operations.
The Ross County Shoemaker Airport averages 20,000 takeoffs and landings per year, and tests this summer to double the footprint — or weight limit for aircraft — could increase that average.
In October, the Ross County commissioners advanced $100,000 to the airport to finish the last third of runway resurfacing work, which has now been completed, making it ready for load-bearing tests.
During the past 20 years, airport manager Jim Parks has helped direct an ongoing improvement project that has included adding a taxiway, clearing obstructions and creating areas to put equipment necessary for aircraft to begin using global positioning satellites for more accurate landings and approaches.
“It enhances the capability of the next generation of aircraft being built,” Parks said of the improvements.
If the footprint is boosted to 100,000 tons, it will far outpace the public airports in Pike and Pickaway counties, which also have shorter airstrips — Ross has about 5,400 feet of runway, while Pike has 4,900 and Pickaway has 4,346.
Chris Manegold, Economic Development Alliance CEO, said having the airport is a selling point for some companies looking to open businesses in the area, especially firms that do a lot of corporate travel by jet.
“It’s a very salable point in terms of economic development, and as we get into our marketing program, that’s one of the things we’ll emphasize,” Manegold said, adding it’s a distinct advantage for a smaller community.
The airport also makes it easier for politicians to put Chillicothe on their campaign trail. The last three presidents have used the airport at one time or another during their campaigns, as have celebrities with area ties.
While the airport sees plenty of human cargo, area manufacturers such as Kenworth also use it to bring in freight for their businesses. A boosted footprint could lead to increased use of the airport for freight, as well.
“Shoemaker Airport is a huge asset for Ross County. Businesses such as Kenworth, Glatfelter and USEC with their home offices elsewhere have the convenience of bringing their top executives to the area in a much more efficient manner in addition to having the capability of having large parts for major repairs arrive in a more timely fashion,” said Marvin Jones, Chillicothe-Ross Chamber of Commerce president.
“For other businesses using private aircraft, our airport meets many of the standards of the FAA required to handle sophisticated jets. It’s a great tool when trying to attract other business and industry to the area as well.”
Few people really know who exactly comes in and out of the airport for safety and security reasons, much like larger airports.
“Everything around here is on a need-to-know basis,” Parks said.
Parks, a licensed pilot, has been helping lead the way at the airport since he came on board in 1984. Originally from Madison, Wis., Parks was introduced to the airport while in Pike County for a railroad bridge project. He never left.
“I love to fly and I just ended up here. Everybody has to be somewhere,” Parks said.
Parks credits the support of the Ross County commissioners as being the key to steady improvements at the airport.
“It’s been a work in progress. It’s been going since the early ’70s,” Parks said.
Commissioners have supported seeking funds from the Federal Aviation Administration to fund improvements. The Ross County airport has received more than $1.2 million in FAA funds in recent years to rehabilitate and improve the taxiway.
Ross County Commissioner Jim Caldwell recalls talks about building an airport beginning in the 1960s when Gov. Jim Rhodes advocated that every county should have its own airport. Caldwell was active with the Jaycees at the time, and the group encouraged the commissioners to build the airport.
After becoming a commissioner, Caldwell recalls former commissioner Robert Rittinger, who was a pilot, talking about the importance of the airport.
“He said, ‘You have to remember it’s the most important mile of highway in the county,’” Caldwell said. “Counties that don’t have those facilities and big enough to bring in sizable aircraft are hurting.”
At least one expansion project was fueled in part by economic demand after Mead executives planned to build a high-speed paper machine. Caldwell recalls executives approached them about the desire to locate the new machine in Chillicothe, but they lamented the runway was not long enough for them to bring in what was needed to complete the project.
The commissioners began seeking funds from the state with the help of then state representative Myrl Shoemaker. His help throughout the years with the airport is why the facility bears his name, Caldwell said. He also credited former consultant, the late Stuart Withers, with being an advocate for securing grant funding for airport projects.
The recession has hurt some use of the airstrip, as have higher fuel prices. At one point, Parks said there were upwards of 40,000 take-offs and landings annually, adding that most of the decrease resulted from small-craft pilots dealing with high fuel costs.
“It’s doing what we’d like it to do,” Caldwell said. “I think as the economy turns around, we’ll see more commercial activity.”
“This economy, it will come back,” Parks agreed. “It’s all about being in position and ready.”
Caldwell credits Parks with finding other ways to capitalize on the airport. The airport has a fueling station, like most other airstrips in the area, and became a federal repair station capable of doing major repairs about 15 years ago. Currently, the customer base is about 250 for repairs and certifications.
The site also has a helicopter support company and offers rental and courtesy car service. At one point, before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the airport had a flight school. While the school is gone, Parks said some teaching continues with interns and others in flight programs with the military.
Also, in the evenings, the airport can be used as a training field for the Ohio National Guard to practice night operations with Black Hawk helicopters.