Company hopes Republican National Convention will be a ‘game-changer’ for Cuyahoga County airport
September 14, 2015
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  • Employees at the Cleveland Jet Center have quite a bit riding on next year’s Republican National Convention.


    Normally, the company’s far-flung location at the Cuyahoga County Airport on the county’s east side serves to lower its public profile, especially compared to the more-prominent Burke Lakefront Airport near downtown Cleveland.


    But after talking to similar companies in cities that have hosted past political conventions, General Manager Aaron Thayer figures the county airport may actually benefit from its location during the RNC, scheduled for the week of next July 18.


    That’s because the airport is 12 miles from downtown Cleveland, the site of the convention. Past conventions have included a 10-mile temporary flight-restriction zone barring many aircraft from entering.


    So, Thayer expects that privately chartered flights that otherwise would land at Burke, which could be within an even tighter security zone, could be redirected to the county airport.


    “I’ve heard from officials that they’re expecting as many as 150 to 200 private aircraft over the course of a three or four-day period that would need to be distributed,” Thayer said. “And with our airport being the closest one with uninterrupted access for the RNC, we’d be the most likely option in a number of ways for a high percentage of those airplanes.”


    Thayer is just one of many Clevelanders hoping to cash in on the convention, which is estimated to result in more than $200 million being spent here. Other hopefuls include the owners and managers of downtown restaurants and other venues who want to host convention-related events, political consultants helping broker those events and the owners of hotels throughout the region that will put up some of the 50,000 people, including 15,000 media members, expected to travel here next July.


    “We feel like [the convention] is potentially a game-changer, both for our business here at the airport, and for the airport itself,” Thayer said.


    Last month’s Republican presidential candidate debate gave local officials a taste of the deluge of private planes they can expect next July. Based on those numbers, officials expect as many as three times as many planes as usual will be coming to Greater Cleveland during the RNC.


    A manager with Landmark Aviation, one of the main companies at Burke, told Crain’s Cleveland Business last month that the the airport was short on space during the debate, and that aircraft likely will have to be diverted to other regional airports during the RNC next year to lessen crowding.


    The manager, James Price, declined to speak with Northeast Ohio Media Group. But airport spokeswoman Michele Dynia said in an email that the airport is working on a plan to accommodate the larger-than-usual number of aircraft.


    Although a restricted-flight zone was in place at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2012, Dynia said Cleveland officials don’t currently anticipate something similar here in Cleveland.


    “We don’t anticipate diversions from [Burke], but aircraft can decide their destination airport,” Dynia said. “[Burke] will be prepared to handle the majority of arrivals and departures due to the proximity of the venue and available airport amenities.”


    But that’s not stopping the Cleveland Jet Center at the Cuyahoga County Airport from trying to peel away some of Burke’s business.


    Last Thursday, a front-desk employee at the Cleveland Jet Center’s airport headquarters wore a white button-up shirt bearing a customized Cleveland Jet Center company logo. It read: “Cleveland Jet Center: Your Runway to the 2016 RNC Convention.”


    The same motto, along with the Republican Party logo, likewise appeared on two giant, vertical banners that hung in the adjacent company hangar, framing an even more giant American flag that hung on the wall. Also inside were nine aircraft of varying sizes, as well as a half-dozen dark-colored luxury vehicles.


    The decorations were left over from a joint fundraiser held in the hangar by the local and state Republican Party during last month’s debate. The event was arranged by a frequent customer of the airport, Thayer said.


    “We welcomed the opportunity,” Thayer said. “It was a great event.”


    The Cleveland Jet Center is the fixed-base operator at the county airport, which means it has been designated to provide services including airplane storage and maintenance, as well as concierge services for the privately chartered and corporate aircraft that use the airport, primarily to access the east side of the county.


    The company has operated under its current ownership since 2012, when businessman Mark D. Hannah bought it out of a court-ordered receivership. Thayer, who has the friendly and outgoing demeanor of a salesman, acknowledged his company — and the county airport in general — is not particularly well-known among outsiders, much less residents of Greater Cleveland, save for the people who live in the immediate vicinity.


    “The problem is, I think we’re the best-kept secret in Cleveland,” Thayer said. While he says business is up over the past year, part of his sales pitch — it’s not as bustling as other nearby airports, allowing for a more boutique experience for customers — hints at the fact that the airport isn’t always busy.


    But Thayer hopes that if the company can make a good impression with convention guests, it can raise its profile among potential customers headed downtown.


    “If they have a great experience in Cleveland, and as we help deliver that experience, we feel that we’ll gain people who will see that we’re not just a gateway to the east side of Cleveland, but we can be much more than that,” Thayer said.


    The company recently renovated its offices, which basically function as a terminal for travelers and their pilots.


    Thayer said visitors often are surprised when they walk into the lobby of the Cleveland Jet Center terminal, which is decorated with flat-screen TVs, high-end leather furniture and a wall-mounted electric fireplace.


    “People get here and they’re like, I didn’t expect this would be here,” he said.


    Thayer said he thinks expectations are set low in part due to name of the airport, which includes the word “county,” carries an unsophisticated connotation.


    He said he hopes County Executive Armond Budish, who took office in January, spruces up the airport to help make a better impression on arriving guests.


    “We’re hopeful. We haven’t seen a lot of movement yet, but we are open to working with the county to tag team that story, the narrative and how to tell that story. I would love the name: Cuyahoga Executive Airport,” Thayer said.


    The county has investment planned for its airport, in the form of a roughly $40 million project to extend its only runway by 500 feet. The county has planned the first phase of the project, which will involve grading, digging and excavation work, so that it will be complete by the time the convention rolls around.