Forty years ago, more than a thousand people gathered on the West Plains to dedicate a $4.6 million passenger terminal at Spokane International Airport. The airport’s two long, finger-shaped concourses gave air travelers their first taste of running to a gate to catch a plane. Up to then they waited in the lobby at the old Geiger Field, walked onto the tarmac and boarded the nearest plane. In a special newspaper section printed for the dedication, the Spokane Area Development Committee proclaimed that the new airport transformed Spokane into “a city of the jet age.”
In the 40 years since that opening, the airport has maintained its focus on its main mission, moving goods and people through its doors. But community expectations have soared in that time.
“When we now get together and talk about economic development, you cannot leave the airport out of the picture,” said David Clack, a Spokane businessman recently appointed by Spokane Mayor Jim West to serve on the seven-person airport board.
West, Clack and many others have concluded the Spokane airport’s relatively inexpensive facilities and undeveloped property need to generate more jobs, not just passenger and cargo numbers.
During last December’s Spokane County-convened economic development summit, Clack was among those who stated that the airport’s economic impact so far hasn’t reached its potential.
West, also a strong champion of the airport’s economic role, said he appointed Clack to the seven-person board because of that remark at the summit. West said: “I told Dave, ‘Let’s see what you can do about it?’ ”
West and others seeking a faster return on the airport’s economic potential are just like leaders in dozens of other cities across the country.
“Airports have become, especially for cities like Spokane, a key economic development tool,” said Kevin Klowden, a research economist at the Milken Institute, a California think tank.
Spokane’s airport board has heard that message. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the volunteer airport board — appointed by county commissioners and Spokane’s mayor — has embraced a wider mission beyond providing passengers a pleasant travel experience, said Spokane Airport Executive Director John Morrison.
“The board members (in recent years) have realized that we needed to do more to generate returns on our assets, specifically our real estate,” he said.
The airport has five lines of business: air passengers, air cargo, real estate (including the Spokane International Airport Business Park), concessions and Felts Field, the smaller general aviation airport on the east edge of Spokane.
Those who feel the airport has underperformed may be confusing its role with that of a port district, Morrison said. Voters have turned down port districts in Spokane County, deciding they didn’t want to create another government layer with the power to levy taxes.
Still, the big push now is property development, an area the board has not pursued aggressively before, he said.
“We didn’t have the money before and we didn’t have the demand (for commercial property) that we’re seeing now,” he said.
Instead of being just a landlord for its 1,600 acres, airport managers are now looking for partnerships they hope will lead to several new buildings available for lease.
Morrison said he expects to see the airport jointly develop three new office buildings with private partners in the next three years. The first will be a 37,000-square-foot business center to be constructed with a private partner later this year, Morrison said.
Another business-park building, constructed in 2004, is a 30,000-square-foot office that’s partly leased by a Spokane bank. The building, not far from Geiger Road, also includes a fitness center and fiber-optic broadband connections.
Over the next five years, Morrison said the airport will spend about $80 million on capital projects, including property development. Some $23 million of that is earmarked for a new air traffic control tower.
The airport has also focused on helping companies find financing and development packages. Last month the airport staff supported a loan request by XN Avionics, a West Plains company that will build a hanger and operations center on the airport.
Taking on the role of developer is more aggressive but also more risky, Morrison said. The airport gets no tax dollars for its operating budget of about $20 million, relying entirely on revenue from landing fees, concession leases and other sources of income.
Scot Auble, an analyst with Spokane real estate consulting firm Auble, Jolicoeur & Gentry, said the efforts being undertaken by the airport board are commendable.
“They’re taking part in the real estate game and that involves a cycle of ups and downs. They’ve had a lot of things poised to happen, and then 9/11 hit and the national recession slowed down (the commercial real estate market),” Auble said.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, every airport board now has to factor some uncertainty into any business plan, said Morrison.
In 2000 and 2001, “We were counting on seeing passenger loads increase 7 percent a year forever,” Morrison said. After Sept. 11 those numbers — and the numbers for all four other Spokane airport revenue sources — “all went down,” Morrison said.
Debuted as Sunset Field
Spokane has always had a major love affair with air travel and aviation, largely derived from our geographic isolation.
It wasn’t until World War II, however, that enough money and energy were available to develop what became Spokane International Airport.
Commercial air traffic to the Midwest and the Eastern United States was launched in Spokane in the 1930s at Felts Field. As capacity there became strained, local officials looked around and found their best options were on the largely undeveloped West Plains.
In 1940, Spokane County bought about 1,200 acres and christened the property Sunset Field, for its proximity to Sunset Highway.
In 1941, as U.S. military leaders began assessing possible wartime needs, the county transferred ownership of the land to the U.S. Army. In June that year, Army Air Corps units took over the property, began the construction of depots and hangers and renamed the facility Geiger Field. The aviation industry designator for Spokane’s airport — GEG — goes back to that original name.
In 1946, a year after the war ended, two large West Coast carriers, Northwest Airlines and United Air Lines, moved their operations to Geiger from Felts Field. By 1957 passenger and cargo traffic was heavy enough to require a new runway be built.
In 1960 the federal government began building the current 75-foot air control tower; at that point the Federal Aviation Administration identified the airfield not as Geiger but as Spokane International Airport.
The last step in the airport’s development was the decision, in 1963, by city and county officials to finance the construction of a $4.6 million terminal.
At its dedication in May 1965, airport officials proudly showcased the terminal’s modern conveniences, not the least of which was a nursery — a separate room in the terminal rotunda area where parents could entertain toddlers. The nursery, long since converted into other uses, featured two playpens and a wall of mirrors.
Morrison and others who work at the airport say they’ve not done a great job of showcasing the airport’s successes and its impact on the area’s economy.
“I don’t think people in the area have a clue. We don’t do a good job of beating our chest,” Morrison said.
In terms of payroll and spending, the entire airport complex approaches the impact of a small city; the airport alone has 155 employees, while tenants, airlines and other firms working at the airport employ another 1,800 workers.
Sports team owner Bobby Brett said he and his three brothers came to Spokane in 1985 looking for a minor league baseball team to buy.
They visited about a half-dozen cities in California, Oregon and Washington, including Salem and the Tri-Cities.
The last city they visited on that trip was Spokane.
His first impression of the city, Brett said, was that Spokane had a real airport, not a 1950s-vintage collection of old aviation buildings.
After visiting downtown and enjoying Riverfront Park, Brett convinced his brothers that Spokane was the investment, and the airport helped seal the deal, Brett said. Brett and his brothers now run the Spokane Indians ball club.
The airport also played a key role in Spokane being chosen to host the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating championships.
William Cloran, a former board member of the U.S. Figure Skating organization, said the decision last year to give the prestigious event to Spokane came down to three key factors.
First, Spokane proved it has a sizeable and loyal contingent of ice skating enthusiasts, he said. It also has one quality arena, and a second one on the way, with the convention center expansion, to be completed by January 2007.
The third factor was the airport, said Cloran. “Spokane has an airport that is easy to get to and that’s within fairly easy driving distance from the city core,” said Cloran in an interview during the Portland U.S. Figure Skating Championships in early January.
The Inland Northwest’s economic history is essentially an ongoing saga of linking area companies and merchants with the rest of the country. The airport’s role has been to broaden that reach to the entire planet.
“Having an international airport that provides easy access to international markets keeps progressive businesses located in our region,” said Roberta Brooke, executive director of the Spokane International Trade Alliance.
Most people assume that means goods-producing companies, such as fast-growing Zak Designs, the Airway Heights firm that sells its plastic dinnerware around the word.
But the airport also will help attract “global mobile” companies to the region, said Randy Barcus, chief economist at Avista Corp.
Such companies might not make things; instead they have workers who travel to customer sites, transact deals, then return home, possibly to an office building near the airport.
The key element is the airport, and its relative ease of use, he said.
“Companies could have their sales staff at a location adjacent to airport,” he said. They’d walk or shuttle to the airport, hop on a plane and fly to Seattle or Portland.
“They’d come back in six hours, get off the plane and get right back to their office.
“Those are companies that aren’t making jets, or making products to ship around the world. They’re part of the new economy, of being mobile and getting work done efficiently.”
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