In the past three years, Adams County has pumped more than $3.6 million into its money-losing Front Range Airport, despite a huge drop in traffic and a nearly 44 percent decline in economic output.
Problems at the airport, which is losing traffic at a faster rate than its neighbors, prompted the termination of its director and elimination of its governing board last year. The county is now in search of an airport manager who will report to the county manager and commissioners instead of an independent authority board.
County officials say the airport remains a good investment, both in terms of its immediate impact on the economy and its future prospect as a site for a statewide spaceport.
“The value is in the economic impact and jobs it creates. Not just primary jobs but also the businesses that have to serve those businesses,” says Adams County commissioner Erik Hansen. “The economic impact well exceeds the millions we’ve spent.”
Front Range Airport sits on nearly 4,000 acres in rural Watkins just east of Denver International Airport, about 19 miles east of Denver.
Nationwide, general aviation airports have seen a decline in traffic and economic output, but some of Front Range’s closest neighbors have found success — thanks to nearby business hubs. They include Centennial Airport near the Denver Tech Center and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport just off of Interlocken Loop.
“Front Range Airport is kind of unique,” said interim director Ken Lawson. “It was built many years ago and got its jump-start around the time DIA opened, but since then it has struggled to have its own existence. Front Range Airport just hasn’t grown up yet.”
The airport has suffered from the lack of development that Adams County officials had expected, Lawson said.
Centennial Airport’s director, Robert Olislagers, credits development for his airport’s success. Centennial Airport no longer takes any funds from Arapahoe County.
From 2003 through 2012, Centennial Airport’s traffic dropped about 15 percent. That includes a current uptick, attributed to increased corporate or jet traffic, which started in 2010.
“The south Denver metro area has done really well,” Olislagers said. “We are great complements of each other. We also have a much more diversified economy than we did 15 years ago.”
Olislagers describes a symbiotic relationship between the developing community — including the Denver Tech Center and Inverness — and the airport. Twenty-three business parks in the area house more than 6,000 companies, including transportation, communication and aerospace firms.
“I can guarantee if this airport weren’t here, some of these businesses and corporations wouldn’t be here either,” Olislagers said.
A 2008 economic study published by the state’s Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics said the state’s general aviation industry generated $1.9 billion in economic output.
A similar study in 2013 showed an increase to $2.4 billion, despite a change in formulas that officials said made the numbers more conservative.
Centennial Airport’s economic impact in 2013 grew to $1.3 billion — a 47 percent increase from 2008.
Even Garfield County Regional Airport, where traffic declined 41 percent from 2003 to 2012 — similar to the 43 percent traffic decline at Front Range Airport — economic impact still went up to $56.9 million, an almost 25 percent increase from 2008 to 2013.
Front Range generated $75.5 million in economic output, according to the 2013 figures — a nearly 44 percent drop from the $134.4 million estimated in 2008.
In 2012, Adams County provided about $1.2 million to the airport, which also sought to trim expenses, but the airport still ended the year with a deficit of $749,545.
Compounding problems, an audit in late 2013 found the airport wasn’t fully accounting operating costs and had contracts that weren’t adequately benefiting the airport.
Despite the costs, experts and county officials say general aviation airports provide many benefits for the counties that run them, including jobs, economic activity and better access for medical flights. In Colorado, officials also noted their role during the fight against wildfires.
David Ulane, northwest mountain regional manager for the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said general aviation airports have been struggling, especially since 2008. He largely blames the increased cost of flying.
Ulane said there are reasons to be hopeful.
“When people hear private aviation, the first thing they think of are the executives, but in actuality most of general aviation flying is flight instruction, small businesses using small planes, and medical transports,” Ulane said.
Small businesses increasingly depend on the efficiencies of air travel — especially in places like Colorado’s mountains, where a one-hour flight might be replacing a six-hour drive, he said.
Also, airports are bracing for an expected shortage of pilots, which might prompt a surge in business for their flight schools, Ulane said.
“One thing that is key is looking at ways to diversify revenue streams,” Ulane said. “That can be everything from something as simple as agriculture or farming or, as Greeley has taken advantage of, the oil and gas development.”
Lawson said Front Range Airport already has a partnership with a neighboring farmer to allow farming on 2,000 acres of airport property, and is exploring other options, including solar-energy fields.
“I believe all airports are going to have to look outside the box,” Lawson said. “It’s a changing world.”