DIXON – The city is eyeing ways to set the airport up as an economic asset in the future.
Airport-related items were on the agendas for the two City Council meetings this month. The city approved engineering agreements to add new lights along the runway and build a fence, and started the process of creating a task force to study airport development.
The seven-member task force is expected to be finalized with appointments Feb. 2, the council’s first meeting next month. Its task will be to study other small, rural airports and see how commercial, retail or airport-related businesses might be attracted, Mayor Jim Burke said.
“We have to look ahead,” he said. “Probably in another 20 years, that airport is going to be very, very important. … That airport is kind of an unrealized asset.”
The developments at Rochelle’s airport in the past few years got Burke thinking about ways to improve Dixon’s.
The development in Rochelle started when then-City Manager Ken Alberts decided the city would take a bigger role with the airport, and help facilitate public-private partnerships, said Jason Anderson, the city’s economic development director.
“Probably about 7 years ago, the airport, like most rural airports, was just a sleepy, general aviation, crop-dusting airport,” he said.
The city made changes to the airport’s management and became more aggressive in its pursuit of businesses. The city built a $1 million hangar, which now houses Rochelle Avionics, a full-service airplane repair business.
About 3 years ago, Chicagoland Skydiving Center built a $2 million hangar and has a restaurant, bar and sand volleyball pits. During the skydiving off-season, November through April, Anderson said the hangar is used as a banquet hall that can hold 500 people.
The airport has hosted a concert and several fundraisers.
“The airport has become a center of activity,” Anderson said. “And that’s what we wanted.”
He said it seems like Dixon is starting to do the same things Rochelle did 7 years ago.
To reach where Rochelle is, Burke said the city needs to take the long view, which has been beneficial in the past.
When George Lindquist was mayor in the early 1970s, he pushed for city water and sewer lines to be extended south, past where the tollway – Interstate 88 – was being built, Burke said, adding that some didn’t see the logic in that because there wasn’t any development out there.
If those lines hadn’t been extended, Burke said, the Lee County Industrial Park might not have been possible.
The first changes coming to the airport will be the fence and runway lights, which Brian Brown, a member of the airport board, said will likely be completed this year.
The current lights are about 25 years old. The replacements will be more energy-efficient and safer for pilots.
The fence will be installed along the north side of the property. It’s part of a Federal Aviation Administration initiative to get fences around American airports. It will help keep people and animals out of the airport, Brown said, adding that animals are generally the bigger concern at the Dixon airport.
On the city’s long-term wish list for the airport is a longer runway, up to 5,000 feet, which is the length most insurance companies require as a minimum for corporate jets. It’s a growing customer base for hangar spots and can be an asset when attracting businesses to locate to the city. Currently, the corporate jets can land at the Rochelle and Whiteside County airports, but they bypass Dixon.
The city owns 11 acres at the west end of the airport. The land has water and sewer lines, and Burke said it’s an ideal spot for development.
Because of where the land is, it can’t be used to extend the runway to 5,000 feet,
Most rural airports get the majority of the their funding from the FAA. And having commercial and economic development at Dixon’s airport might strengthen future city applications, Burke said.