Courtesy of Maria Polletta
The Republic |
Mon Dec 3, 2012

When the recession slammed the Valley in 2008, Chandler’s municipal airport was not spared.

“The Airpark Area — a 9-square-mile employment corridor anchored by the airport — was hit hardest by the economy tanking,” said Lori Quan, an economic-development specialist stationed at the airport. “More than 500,000 square feet of speculative space was delivered to that submarket, and the buildings stayed unoccupied for a long time.”

A series of management decisions and infrastructure improvements, however, have changed the course of airport and airpark development over the past year, expediting growth.

Late last year, responsibility for the airport was moved from the Chandler Department of Public Works to the Economic Development Department, which allowed it to benefit from that department’s extensive network, Quan said. A new entrance at Cooper Road was completed this year, and tenants who want to go off septic tanks now have access to sewers.

“The vacancy rate is pretty low now, and we’ve hit a couple of milestones that indicate this area is coming back,” Quan said.

As of September, the general-aviation airport was the 21st busiest in the U.S., jumping more than 20 spots in a year. There were 20 percent more airport operations from November 2011 to October than from November 2010 to October 2011.

“The figures, in terms of the activity at the airport, have really shot back up again,” said city Councilman Kevin Hartke, a member of the Chandler Airport Commission. “Developers have really taken notice of this area again, and businesses really see this as a viable place.”

This fall, aircraft-parts distributor Aero-Zone moved its Mesa headquarters to a 31,000-square-foot building at 2200 S.Stearman Drive, occupying one of the “shell buildings” constructed in 2008 that sat empty.

“The network was already there for it, so it just seemed like a very natural transition for us,” said Alfredo Dreyfus Jr., Aero-Zone president. “I had the vision that that was a great location and a great spot for us, where our company could really grow. Coming from a 12,000-square-foot space, the building being 31,000 square feet really allows us to have a bit of breathing room.”

Dreyfus purchased the 2.25-acre property adjacent to the site as well, likely for expansion.

The airport also has proved a good match for flight academies and aviation programs.

“Lori (Quan) and her group were very accommodating when we were looking at setting up our facility there, and the fact that it’s not super congested makes it easier for us to get out and fly there,” said Tom Lippincott, vice president of business development for TransPac Aviation Academy.

TransPac began offering classes at the airport in April.

“Our intention is to eventually expand, but that’s contingent on new business,” Lippincott said. “But we’re very happy with what we’ve seen so far.”

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s airpark campus, at Pecos and Dobson roads, has helped the school meet rising demand for aviation-safety and air-science-related courses, Quan said. About 200 students, including Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and transfers from Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s aviation program, take aviation-law, human resource-management and aviation-safety classes there.

“We were thinking, ‘It might be nice to have Embry-Riddle at an airport location. It makes more sense,’” said Patricia Beck, director of academic support. “(Students) like being able to go out at break and check out the flight lines.”

Chandler has offered Embry-Riddle students use of the airport’s administration-building conference room to supplement the university’s space. Embry-Riddle also is considering an expansion, though Beck said plans were still in the exploratory phase.

Despite the airport’s progress this year, much remains to be done.

“We know this area could lend a lot more to aviation and aerospace, and we do have that in our plan,” Quan said. “We’re also speaking to some developers that would build speculative multipurpose-use, office and hangar space. We don’t have that kind of space for companies looking to move to the airport right now.”

Hartke said, “Some people have been waiting well over a decade for a hangar out there, which speaks to the opportunity for companies to go in and build hangars and T-shades, which we’d love to see.

“I think we’ll see a lot of people pulling permits and wanting to develop vacant land out there.”

An orthopedic group already is working to rezone a property in the Airpark Area in order to build a 16,900-square-foot space, according to Quan. The building would contain doctors’ offices, exam rooms, areas for outpatient surgery and physical therapy, and an outdoor sports field for performance training, she said.

“Overall, I think that progress is going well, and as the economy gets better, there will be a lot more going on out there,” city Councilman Rick Heumann said. “I think they’re doing a great job. We’re really striving for quality,” he said.