Aviation is a key component of the economy of the state of Arkansas, enabling the state’s businesses to connect with markets throughout the U.S. and the world, Jerry Chism, director of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, said Monday.
Chism, who spoke to Oaklawn Rotary Club Monday during its weekly meeting at The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa, told Rotarians that Arkansas’ 90 system airports and Little Rock Air Force Base support more than 42,400 jobs, generate $1.5 billion in payroll and produce $3.5 billion in economic activity annually. In addition, the airports serve as vital business links and support critical services such as medical care, agriculture, law enforcement, recreation and environmental analysis.
On a local level, the annual economic impact of Hot Springs Memorial Field on the city of Hot Springs totals $67,770,000.
“Sixty-seven million dollars of economic activity occurs in your city because of that airport annually,” he said. “And that was from a yearlong study by a national facility; that’s not just some number we made up. Your airport is huge to your city. I know sometimes people say, ‘Well, I don’t fly, so I don’t care about the airport.’ I promise you, you benefit from that airport whether you fly out of it or not.
“I don’t have any kids in the Cabot School District but I don’t mind paying taxes to the public schools because I appreciate an educated society, because I benefit from that. It’s the same thing with an airport; you may not fly out of that airport, you may never go to that airport, but I promise you, as a citizen of Hot Springs, you benefit from having that airport here.”
Chism, who was born and raised in Cabot, where he still lives today, turned his aviation hobby into a career in 2004 when he joined the ADA as assistant director. In 2015, he was appointed to the position of director by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Chism said the ADA is a state agency similar to the Federal Aviation Administration but on a smaller, less regulatory level. Like the FAA, he and his staff are familiar with all Arkansas airports and interact with them on a regular basis.
The department’s staff is made up of five individuals, with a commission of seven additional individuals. Commissioners are appointed by the governor and serve five-year terms.
Responsibilities of the ADA include inspecting airports and air navigation facilities, encouraging the establishment and planned expansion of airports, promoting aviation safety and security, administering state airport aid money and coordinating aviation planning efforts between local, state and federal governments.
The department publishes a current air navigation chart and a pictorial airport directory, both of which are updated annually and are popular among pilots and airport staff, Chism said.
“We give those out free of charge — we’re one of the only states in the country that does that free of charge, and tax dollars allow us to do that,” he said.
The department also assists the state’s airports in planning the development of projects to make sure they are doing things that keep them in compliance with the FAA, including working with them on their capital improvement plans and maintaining a State Airport System Plan, which Chism describes as “basically a big report card.”
“We work closely with, but are not part of, the FAA and the TSA. We like to say we wear the white hats. Those are both very good agencies but they’re a little more on the regulatory side than we are,” he added. “We work, obviously, hand in hand with any agency that deals with aviation but we are not apart of them.”
Aviation safety and education are promoted by the department through its wire marker program, FBO Line Training video series, Windsock program, annual Certified Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic and annual Inspection Authorization Clinic.
The department also provides grants to airports to aid in making the facilities safer or to make economic improvements. Chism stressed to Rotarians that the ADA does not receive any general revenue funding from the state; all of its funding comes from special revenue.
“All aviation sales tax in Arkansas comes to our agency. If you buy an airplane, if you buy gas for it, if you buy parts for an airplane, all the sales tax on that, none of it goes to general revenue; it all comes to us,” he said. “Aviation in Arkansas is self-funded. I’ve spoken to people before and they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t like my tax dollars going to the airport.’ Well, if you’re not a pilot, your tax dollars aren’t going to the airport because it’s all coming from aviation sales tax. What we do is we take that money and put it into a grant program and we give it back to the airports.”
Chism said that Hot Springs’ airport has been “very good” about taking advantage of the ADA’s grant program. In the last 10 years, the department has provided Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport with $5,048,460.19 in grant money.
“And that’s what we want them to do,” he said. “Honestly, that money belongs to the airports; we can’t spend it for anything else so we want them to come and get the money and use it to make airports better.”