Clouds and the promise of rain kept the skies above the Stafford Regional Airport quiet on a recent Wednesday morning, except for a helicopter that buzzed onto the runway.
The weather would make the count of aircraft operations that day low. An aircraft usually lands about every two hours here in a 24-hour time span, airport director Edward Wallis said.
Wallis keeps such numbers at his fingertips. Especially this year, since the airport has attracted more attention than usual.
A failed proposal for a residential development near the airport sparked a still-simmering debate about the facility’s economic value.
Airport officials came out against the proposal, arguing that dense residential development near the airport could not only impose safety risks, but endanger state and federal funding of future projects.
Most supervisors agreed that Stafford County needs to protect an economic asset such as the airport and voted against the development called Oakenwold.
Supervisor Cord Sterling didn’t support Oakenwold, but it wasn’t because of the airport. He argues that the facility that opened in 2001 has become a flying club for a few individuals, all while the county, state and federal government continue to provide financial aid.
Don Newlin, who has been on the county’s Economic Development Authority for more than 30 years, sees an economic boon from the airport on the horizon.
“In the next five to 10 years I think you are going to see economic activity there that is going to alleviate the concerns of some,” Newlin said. “We [the EDA] are very much interested in cooperating with them because we realize the potential that the airport has for economic activity.”
In 2010, general aviation airports in the commonwealth such as Stafford Regional generated 5,154 jobs, $213 million in payroll and $728 million in economic activity, according to a 2011 study from the Virginia Department of Aviation, the most recent look at the economic impact.
Newlin said the EDA commonly gets asked by prospective businesses whether there is an airport in the county.
“It’s a relief to be able to tell them yes,” he said.
A January 2013 press release from the county’s economic development office called the airport an economic generator that was soaring to new heights.
“When you look at the number of consulting companies and government contractors [in Stafford], the fact that they have an airport like the Stafford Airport nearby we think is a selling point,” said Hank Scharpenberg, chairman of the Stafford Airport Authority.
Economic Development Authority Chairman Joel Griffin said the EDA had expected more economic development from the airport by this point, but hadn’t anticipated the Great Recession.
“If you look at the regional airports collectively, they have been a value added to the community,” Griffin said. “The expectation of the EDA is that the airport is going to be self-sustaining.”
In 2010, the state study estimated Stafford airport’s impact on the region at 105 jobs, $4.3 million in payroll and $18.2 million in economic activity.
When measuring jobs, the study counted positions at the airport and airport-dependent businesses, as well as jobs supported by visitor spending and by airport workers spending their wages in the local community.
Payroll and economic activity were measured in a similar way, with direct impacts from the airport added to indirect impacts.
“In the big picture, I think we are a good return on your money,” Wallis said. “When it comes to [returning to] the local economy, we are in the tens of millions of dollars.”
The numbers of pilots flying into the airport and leasing out spaces to store their aircraft have increased over the past decade.
Between 2002 and 2014, the number of aircraft based at the airport swelled from zero to 74. Previous reports had predicted the airport would be home to at least 121 planes by now.
The airport is currently operating at one-tenth of its design capacity. In the past year, there were 26,300 operations at the airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Operations can include a takeoff, a landing or even a touch-and-go where an airplane doesn’t come to a full stop.
In 2010, there were 23,338 operations, compared with 13,000 operations in 2002.
The airport expects a “modest growth rate” of approximately 1,000 additional operations per year for the next several years, according to a report prepared by the airport’s engineers.
More than $14 million in development has occurred since construction of the airport began in 1997. The bulk of that funding has come from the federal government through the Federal Aviation Administration, but Stafford has helped out financially, as well.
One of the largest capital projects completed at the airport was also its most recent. A $3.4 million terminal opened in January, replacing a triple-wide trailer. The terminal was financed through about $2 million in grants from the Virginia Department of Aviation and an interest-free loan from Stafford that was approved two years ago.
The airport was expected to borrow $1.4 million from the county for the terminal, but needed only $1.3 million because the project came in under budget. In July, the county allowed the airport to use some of the unused money to purchase more equipment.
The loan came from the county’s transportation fund, which is fed by the motor fuels tax, state recordation tax and transportation bond proceeds.
Stafford also loaned the airport $133,950 at no interest in August 2009 to help pay the debt service on some newer hangars designed for smaller, private aircraft. Leasing hangars, or spaces used to store aircraft, is one the largest sources of the airport’s revenue, next to fuel sales.
So far, the airport has repaid the county $2,420 for the terminal loan and $18,433 for the 2009 hangar loan using revenue from corporate hangars.
Wallis said that the airport needed the 2009 hangar loan because the county’s tax on aircraft was one of the highest in the region, causing only half of the available hangar spaces to be filled.
In the same year that Stafford issued the loan, supervisors slashed the tax on aircraft. Wallis said that in the seven months following that action, the number of leased aircraft at the airport doubled from 35 to 70 because the new tax was on par with that at competing airports in Manassas and Leesburg.
Critics called the action a break for the wealthy, powerful few.
Presently, three of the airport’s 40 hangars that are designed for smaller, private aircraft are empty.
NOT ENOUGH GROWTH?
Sterling said that he worries the county’s relationship with the airport has become too much like the tail wagging the dog.
He pointed to operating subsidies the county has provided the airport since it was built. The subsidy has been $85,714 per year since being reduced several years ago from $114,286.
Airport officials said it is the ultimate aim to operate without a subsidy, but they didn’t know exactly when that will happen.
Sterling also took issue with the two loans the county provided to the airport at no interest and with no set deadline to repay.
“I am concerned that even after the airport got the airplane tax eliminated, is given millions in taxpayer funds for infrastructure improvements on the airport, is given interest-free loans from the taxpayers taxpayers are still being forced to subsidize the daily operations,” Sterling said.
“Name a business that operates tax free and has all its infrastructure paid for by others, and still can’t make the business work. In the private sector, a CEO of such a company would be fired.”
He said that if the airport was an economic asset, commercial businesses would be looking to locate next to it instead of a housing development.
Sterling also doubted the numbers behind the state report.
“Show me those 107 jobs,” he said.
Supervisor Paul Milde said he knows of businesses that are interested in the area around the airport and that contracts are being written.
“We’re lucky to have it. It’s generating revenue. It has amazing potential that we are going to realize,” Milde said.
Milde also noted that the county has invested in other ventures without expecting to get paid back.
“We’re creating jobs here. We’re leading the state in economic indicators. These are really wise decisions that were put in place,” Milde said. “It certainly doesn’t make sense to stunt its growth.”
The airport is in the early stages of expanding its runway by 1,000 feet, and is also looking at restoring a flight pattern on the northern end of the property.
The extension, which still must get funding from the FAA and go through rounds of public hearings, would allow airplanes to travel transcontinental and avoid congestion at larger airports.
The extension has been delayed five years so that one-way obstructions could be cleared.
Sterling thinks the county should oppose the expansion and flight pattern change. He is particularly concerned that the flight pattern change would allow planes to fly over dense residential neighborhoods and Colonial Forge High School.
Airport officials say if the traffic pattern is restored, planes might nick airspace above the Colonial Forge subdivision if it is fully built out, but the high school wouldn’t be impacted.
“It’s a ridiculous stretch. He’s casting stones, he’s being aggressive. He’s throwing a temper tantrum,” Milde said. “He’s lashing out because he wanted to create an issue that didn’t exist.”
Sterling recently sent an email to all of the county School Board members suggesting that they take a position on the topic. School Board member Dana Reinboldt said at the board’s Oct. 28 meeting that she wanted to bring it up at a later date for further discussion.
A resolution Sterling drew up stating opposition to the expansion died for lack of a second from other supervisors.
“Instead of holding them accountable for an effective business operation, the county is allowing them to expand, costing millions more in taxpayer funds, and in a manner that the airport chairman himself says will be incompatible, negative for quality of life, and dangerous for those on the ground,” Sterling said in his email to School Board members.
“I know that some of the Supervisors may have been uncomfortable voting on the issue, given the thousands in campaign donations that have been made by airport authority members to area politicians in recent years.”