Willard Airport task force's plan on way to Wise

 

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A comprehensive plan to revamp Willard Airport is on its way to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

If the campus approves, the next step will be figuring out how to implement it — and pay for it.

A community task force Thursday approved a strategic business plan for Willard that contains 14 recommendations, ranging from a new management structure to marketing initiatives to an automated parking system (and higher rates).

While some of the recommendations would save money or generate new revenue, the plan could cost about $300,000 to implement in the short term, said task force Chairman Steve Carter, retired Champaign city manager. The money would cover new management salaries, marketing efforts and incentives to lure more air traffic to Willard.

The UI already provides a $433,000 annual subsidy for airport operations, so it may be time for the community to contribute, Carter and others said.

"This airport is a job generator" and crucial to attracting new business to town, said task force member Alan Nudo, president of Robesons Inc. "We all have to step up."

Officials at the meeting agreed, however, that property taxes are not the way to go — especially given the recent failure of the Champaign school bond issue. Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight said "visitor taxes," such as a hotel or food and beverage tax, make more sense.

The community may want to transition to an airport authority down the road, officials said, but state law currently mandates funding those solely through property taxes.

In the short term, the report recommends the UI issue a request for proposals for a private airport management company to run Willard — something that Texas A&M, one of the few other universities that owns an airport, has done — or hire a strong chief executive officer with a direct line to the chancellor and decision-making power.

A subcommittee led by Knight suggests crafting an intergovernmental agreement over the next three to five years to provide financial support for airport operations, with a combined contribution of $250,000 annually from Champaign, Urbana, Savoy and the county. The report also recommends creating a regional advisory committee, with representatives from those governmental units and related agencies, to advise Willard on a master plan, economic development, air service and general aviation.

The task force is made up of about 20 people from governmental bodies, including the UI, Parkland College, Visit Champaign County, the convention and tourism bureau, and Champaign area businesses and organizations. Wise asked the group in January to examine the airport's governance and management, parking operations and air service opportunities, and to develop a business plan.

Last month, the group reviewed a draft report, and on Thursday members gave final approval to the same recommendations. The plan is to forward the report to Wise by the end of the year, then meet with the chancellor on Jan. 27 to hear her feedback.

Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo said the chancellor hasn't studied the recommendations in detail but he called it a "good report."

"An airport authority probably makes the most sense for the community. But I think that's a long way off," he added.

Task force members agreed the study provided valuable information and dispelled "myths" about Willard — including one that says customers are abandoning it in favor of Bloomington's airport. Data showed that wasn't true, but Willard does lose customers to Indianapolis and Chicago.

They also said the keys will be implementation and funding. Businessman Dwight Miller criticized the report as lacking benchmarks to ensure progress is made.

"I struggle with, what is the real end goal? If it's increased service, how do we get there? I can't see that," he said.

Carter said details will be worked out once the university makes a decision on how to proceed.

"This is a road map if you will," Carter said. "We know the work is just starting."

A few highlights of recommendations listed in the Willard Airport Task Force's draft report:

Issue a request for proposals for private management companies to manage the airport.

If no responses meet desired qualifications, hire a CEO to run the airport.

Create a regional airport advisory committee in January with representatives from the UI, cities and local agencies.

Increase parking rates to generate additional revenue, from $5 to $7 a day. Parking currently generates $450,000 annually for the airport.

Automate parking.

Work with the cities and Champaign County to develop stronger taxi licensing regulations and to ensure the continuation of public transit at the airport.

Adopt a standard incentive plan for new air service.

Develop community support for new and expanded air service.

Figure cost projections and design of new rental car service center.

Re-brand the airport "Fly Champaign-Urbana" in early 2015. The official name wouldn't change, but the new brand would dominate signage and marketing.

Create a land-use master plan by the end of 2015.

Lobby politicians to win funding for a new air-traffic control tower at Willard, estimated at $10 million.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).