Willard exec search next step for task force

Willard exec search next step for task force

SAVOY — With no management firms interested, Willard Airport is about to begin scouting for a new executive director who could be on board by early 2016.

Plans to have an outside management firm run the University of Illinois airport and implement changes suggested by an intergovernmental task force fell through last month when no bidders stepped forward.

The other option suggested by the task force was to hire a new executive director with the decision-making authority that has eluded past airport managers, to be the "voice for, and face of, the airport."

Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo said the hope is to advertise the job within the next couple of weeks. The salary could be in the $150,000 range, though that's still being determined, he said.

He is hopeful the director can be hired by Jan. 1 and be on the job shortly thereafter.

While the lack of bidders has slowed plans to revamp the airport "a teeny bit," work is continuing on other projects, such as a new marketing campaign, automated parking and new standards for taxi service, DeLorenzo said.

The task force report had estimated that the management firm could be a cheaper option, given the experience at Texas A&M, which recently hired a company for $135,000 a year. The company could also absorb the current airport manager's salary of $81,451, the report said.

Management firms are less expensive if they can also be the airport's fixed-base operator, providing fueling, hangars, aircraft rental and maintenance — often the "main profit center" for the company, said retired Champaign city manager Steve Carter, chairman of the Willard task force and now its advisory committee.

But at Willard, those functions have been handled for years by Flightstar Corp., so that piece of business wasn't available.

The other lure is the ability to tap into a large concession operation or other economic development around the airport, DeLorenzo said, and "we just don't have that at Willard yet."

Because of the limited income opportunities, the university likely would have had to pay any management firm a larger fee, he said. The airport tried to hire a management firm in 2007 but didn't get any takers then, either, he said.

The current airport manager, Steve Wanzcek, "has done a good job," Carter said, but his responsibilities are supposed to focus on day-to-day airport operations.

The new executive would work on more strategic, "visionary" issues — expanding air service and studying economic development possibilities around the airport itself, Carter said. Specifically, the director would meet regularly with airlines to establish relationships and try to add flights, and work on plans to add a rental car facility or a larger hangar to handle bigger jets, he said.

Marketing is also a big piece — capturing the two-thirds of passengers from the area who use other airports, primarily in Indianapolis and Chicago, rather than Willard, Carter said.

The new director would report to the chancellor's office, through DeLorenzo, as the task force recommended. Oversight of Willard has bounced around UI offices over the years, recently moving from the university office of business and finance to the campus level, which makes more sense, Carter said.

Meanwhile, airport planners have continued to work on other changes. The airport advisory panel meets every other month, with five subcommittees exploring specific projects.

"Obviously, if there was a director on board it would go faster, but we're moving," DeLorenzo said.

A rebranding campaign for the airport, with the slogan "Fly Champaign-Urbana," is still scheduled to roll out in August. The plan is to tie it into community marketing efforts with UI athletics and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Carter said.

A transportation committee is looking into automating Willard's parking system, projected to cost about $500,000. The task force estimated it would save almost $55,000 in annual labor costs, and higher parking fees would generate another $131,000, paying for the improvements in just three years.

The transportation committee is also talking to the cities of Champaign and Urbana about new standards for taxis, such as requiring them to accept credit cards.

"We'd like to see clean cars, clean vehicles out there," DeLorenzo said. "We have had complaints from folks who arrive, especially from big cities, and can't find a taxi that takes credit cards. We get reports of fares to the same place that are inconsistent."

The financial climate isn't ideal given the state budget picture, officials conceded.

The timetable may have to be stretched out for some projects, such as the new rental car facility (estimated at $600,000 to $1 million), "until the budget situation clears," DeLorenzo said.

"The university is very cost-conscious right now," Carter said. "It's hard for them to think about undertaking too much at the airport without having a good idea of where their funding is."

Money for the new director's salary and other changes would come from the airport's accounts, DeLorenzo said. But Willard currently requires a $400,000-plus subsidy from the university, which includes state funds.

The point of the task force recommendations is to eliminate the need for any campus subsidy, he noted.

A governance committee is looking at the long-term economic development possibilities and the feasibility of an airport authority as a governing structure down the road, which would likely require some municipal tax support. But the cities aren't in a financial position to support the airport now, either, Carter said.

"The chancellor has said all along that the airport is important for the university. For us to maintain a global presence and to maintain the strength of our research, we need an airport. But I think the long-term planning needs to look at the (airport) authority," DeLorenzo said.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 04, 2015 at 12:07 pm
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Neither the consumer base nor the free market is interested in Willard. This looks like a great place for Bruce Rauner to wield his hatchet. He can save $150,000 immediately.

Sid Saltfork wrote on July 04, 2015 at 3:07 pm

It would make a great motocross track, private aircraft field, skate board field, or it could be converted to corn and beans.  The idea of a university airport is fading into history across this country.  It would save a considerable amount of public money.  Maybe a corporate donor, or donors would be willing to buy it for their research staff in their buildlings on campus.  Have Raytheon, and the others been approached?  

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on July 04, 2015 at 6:07 pm

Look for the former City Mgr of the City of Champaign to get that job.

 

just sayin.....

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