For years, the backers of Akron Fulton International Airport have worried it would go away.
Now that it’s gone, they say they couldn’t be happier.
They’re excited, they say, by the new Akron Executive Airport — same spot, same buildings, same main runway, but with a renewed commitment by the city of Akron and others.
“We’re alive and well, and KAKR (the airport’s FAA designation) means business. We’re really serious about what we’re doing, and we sense some great opportunities there,” said Phil Maynard, longtime Akron businessman and chair of the advisory committee that recently convinced Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan to support the airport.
Horrigan, who already had a Blue Ribbon Task Force report on the city that also emphasized the airport’s importance, signed on fully. On Aug. 3, Horrigan announced that the city was renaming the facility Akron Executive Airport, reconfiguring its layout, investing in infrastructure, restarting nighttime operations and launching a new marketing campaign and website.
The major proposed change is the removal of the airport’s shorter north-south runway, which is about half the length of the 6,000-foot east-west runway that is the airport’s workhorse. Maynard said he’s confident the FAA will approve the closure, and he expects it be done in a year or so.
Ironically, removing the runway frees up the airport to grow. Eliminating it will free up more than 100 acres of land, far more land than the runway occupies, because every runway has severe setbacks that create no-build zones, Maynard said.
“There’s probably going to be 80 to 100 acres we’ll pick up on one side, by Triplett (Boulevard), and then on the other side of the runway maybe 30 more acres,” Maynard said.
Whether there will be demand for that land remains to be seen, but airports are proven economic development drivers, backers say.
“I was at a (real estate) conference two years ago. There’s a book called ‘Aerotropolis,’ and the concept is that future economic drivers and the success of a city is based on the development around airports. Obviously in Akron the scale isn’t going to be equivalent to what would happen in Denver, but the concept is still the same. So yeah, I think it’s a big deal,” said Jerry Fiume, managing director of Akron’s SVN Summit Commercial Real Estate Group.
The author of that book, University of North Carolina’s John Kasarda said that while small airports don’t support cities the way large ones can, they still play a part in economic development.
“Small airports have performed important roles in local economic development, but usually by serving a niche market that plays to unique competitive advantages of the area such as tourism and resort attractions, nearby high-value industries such as specialized health services, and general aviation aircraft maintenance and repair. To have an aerotropolis-type of impact usually requires substantial commercial airline service found in larger airports,” Kasarda said in email correspondence.
Akron Executive Airport has seen some development in recent years, along the lines that Kasarda describes, too, for specialized companies that can leverage the airport to help their businesses.
Randy Theken, who founded a group of medical device companies, has centered his operations at the airport. Those businesses include NextStep Arthropedix and NextStep Extremities, which design joint and extremity implants; and Slice Manufacturing Studio, a maker of medical devices and other advanced-manufacturing products.
Theken started at the airport in 2004, when his company bought its first plane and he purchased the 15,000-square-foot former airport terminal building and converted it to NextStep’s headquarters.
“Then, right next to that we just built a 40,000-square-foot building (in 2016), and Slice Manufacturing is in there now,” Theken said.
Why does a medical device maker feel the need to be at an airport?
It’s simple, Theken said. Selling spine and joint implants to surgeons often requires meeting with them to explain and demonstrate the product. That works best in person, Theken said, but getting a highly paid surgeon to take multiple days to fly to Akron and back was a tough sell. Moving to the airport solved that problem and increased sales.
“We are probably bringing in about 100 physicians a year since having the plane,” Theken said. “Before that, we were lucky if we had five a year.”
Now the company owns four planes.
While Theken laughs when asked if he enjoys having nearly his own private airport, he’s quick to point out that’s not what he wants. He’s hoping others follow his lead and use the airport as well to ensure it remains open and receives future investment.
John Hogarth hopes that happens as well. He owns North Coast Air Care, an aircraft maintenance company, and Summit Airport Services, the airport’s operator and fuel vendor.
Hogarth said about 15 companies now keep planes at the airport, with many more flying in and out as well.
It wasn’t that way when he moved his companies from New Philadelphia in 2000. Hogarth made it happen.
“We engaged in a program to get those flights here. We would see a corporate jet going into Akron-Canton or Cuyahoga County, and we’d call them and say, “Why are you flying there? Why not try us?” Hogarth said.
It’s easier to fly into than Akron-Canton and a no-brainer for corporate executives with meetings in downtown Akron.
It’s a compelling pitch for others as well because the airport is less than a mile from Akron’s interstates, he said.
“Our target is Akron, Canton and up north, let’s say, up to Hudson — anyone doing business in that area,” Hogarth said.
Folks like Theken and Hogarth are the sort of people that city officials and Maynard support, in the hope they will continue to push the airport forward.
Hogarth said the city recently awarded him a 25-year contract to run the airport, instead of a five-year contract like it has issued in the past. That gives him and the airport more certainty about its future and confidence to invest, Hogarth said.
Others are starting to take note and use the airport. Stark State College announced it will open a commercial-drivers-license school at the airport at the end of this year, in response to local business demands for more truck drivers and the city’s marketing of airport property.
Akron Economic Director Sam DeShazior said the airport has been an important part of Akron’s economy almost since it was first built in 1929 and the city hopes it will continue in that role.
“One of the assessments (of the Blue Ribbon Task Force) was that this airport is a valuable commodity for a city like ours and we should put it to good use,” DeShazior said.
“I look at is as a place to attract talent, innovation and investment.”