When a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 landed Jan. 12 at the M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, rather than the Branson Airport seven miles south, the little facility next to College of the Ozarks became the most famous airport in the country until the plane departed the next day.
While it might not normally attract that sort of attention, the general aviation airport has been a part of the community for more than 40 years.
Airport Manager Mark Parent stresses that the county-owned airport belongs to, and benefits, everyone in Taney County.
“It’s the taxpayers’ airport,” Parent said. “It belongs to them.”
The facility is a general aviation airport, which means it is used for a wide variety of air service, such as corporate flights, personal aircraft, military, Department of Conservation, organ-donation deliveries and more. The types of planes that use the airport range from jets, turboprops and piston-driven light aircraft.
The facility has anywhere from 6,000 to 11,000 landings each year, according to Parent.
Unlike most general aviation airports, however, this one is self-sufficient, something Parent is extremely proud of. He said most communities that have a municipal or county airport have to subsidize them. But this airport has been turning a small profit every year since it was turned over to the county by its original owner, College of the Ozarks.
The Taney County 2014 budget, approved earlier this month, shows the airport is projected to have a surplus of $41,000 for the year.
Parent, who has worked at the facility for 25 years, said he does not know how many general aviation airports are self-supporting, but he said “it is unusual.”
He said most people don’t realize the full benefits of a general aviation airport. Although he would not give a specific name, he said there are some large employers in the area who would not be here if not for an airport to keep its corporate leaders connected.
“There are businesses, with gobs of employees, that wouldn’t be here if this airport weren’t here,” he said. “It allows corporate officers to come to town and open a business.”
That, he said, is why so many communities are willing to subsidize airports.
According to a recent economic impact study from the Missouri Department of Transportation, the M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport has a total of 46 jobs (including employees of other businesses that operate at the airport) with a payroll of $1.35 million and a direct economic output of $4.7 million, which Parent said is the highest amount the airport has seen in a decade. Parent said that translates to an annual economic impact in excess of $36 million.
The airport was built in 1970 by College of the Ozarks, whose president, M. Graham Clark, had a passion for flying. Although it was a private airport that served the school’s aviation program, it was also open to the public. Parent said the airport had an immediate impact on the Branson area.
“It was a catalyst for growth in the Branson area,” he said.
The facility became the county’s airport in 2005. Parent said the city of Branson pays the airport $10,000 a year for services, Hollister supports the airport with water and sewer services, and the county provides benefits for the airport’s six county employees, including Parent. Otherwise, the airport supports itself.
“It continues to pay its own operating expenses,” Parent said.
He said the annual payment from Branson allows the airport to not charge a landing fee. (So no, Southwest Airlines did not have to pay for its errant landing.)
The airport is able to pay its bills through a variety of venues. The airport receives lease fees from businesses that operate at the venue, including Avis, Chopper Charter and Metro Aviation, which provides maintenance services to Mercy Life Line helicopters.
The airport also provides monthly service for 63 private aircraft. And the airport charges for fuel.
A hanger, built by the county for $660,000 in 2009, makes $48,000 a year in hanger rentals, according to Parent.
The airport also takes advantage of several grants. For instance, Parent said the airport will be able to take advantage of a Missouri Department of Transportation grant to replace the runway lights. The grant is a 90 percent match, meaning the county would normally have to pay 10 percent of the costs. But Parent said the airport generates enough funds to pay the 10 percent, meaning the county will pay nothing.
It hasn’t always been easy, according to Parent. When the county first took over the airport, it generated a profit of about $130,000 a year. Then in 2009, the Branson Airport, a large commercial facility, opened and took the business of many jets that had previously flown into the county airport, Parent said. That same year, the Branson West Municipal Airport, another general aviation airport, opened the same distance to the west and created even more competition.
Combined with a downturn in the economy, the county airport’s annual surplus dropped to about $30,000, Parent said. Today that number is between $40,000 and $50,000, he said.
But, the airport still pays for itself every year and that’s something Parent and the other airport employees are proud of.
“We’re always walking around on top of the world,” he said.