Up in the air: County to consider airport operations in 2018

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, November 18, 2017

JANESVILLE—In the 1970s, you could catch a connecting flight to Detroit at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.

Seriously—it even had a security station.

The last commercial passenger flight left the airport in 1989, but the airport still gets plenty of use: It handles an average of 43 flights per day. The facility is regularly used by freight operators, the military, charter companies and private aviators.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith will ask the county board to form an ad hoc committee next year to look at the cost of airport operations.

In the county's 2018 budget, the amount of property taxes spent on the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport went up 7.5 percent, Smith said. That percentage growth amounted to about $38,000 of the county's overall property tax levy of $66.91 million going to the airport.

It might not seem like much, but that percentage outpaced the growth of the county's property tax levy limit.

The levy limit, which is the amount the county is allowed to tax, only went up 2.2 percent.

The retirement of long-time airport director Ron Burdick and the appointment of an interim airport manager also make it a good time to tackle the future of the airport, Smith said.

Study topics

The board and the public works committee that oversees the airport haven't talked about the issue a great deal, Smith said.

“The study could look at what kind of facilities we should have and what kind of equipment we have,” Smith said.

For example, the airport division asked for $125,000 for a snow removal equipment wash bay in this year's budget. The total cost of the project would've been $625,000, with the county paying 20 percent. The project was not funded.

Nor was a new 10-unit T-hangar at a cost of $750,000. Had it been funded, the county might've had to wait as long as 60 years for the return on that investment, Smith noted in his budget.

Depending on what the ad hoc committee decides, both of those purchases might be reconsidered.

The study could also look at the airport's part 139 operating certificate.

A part 139 operating certificate is for airports that serve scheduled passenger planes with more than nine passenger seats but fewer than 31 passenger seats, according to the FAA.

To be certified, an airport must meet specific lighting and runway marking standards and have firefighting capability, an airport rescue plan, a plan for snow and ice control, and a wildlife hazard management plan.

The certification also requires maintenance workers to be trained in firefighting.

The airport's empty restaurant space might also be part of the study.

When the airport underwent major renovations between 2012 and 2015, the restaurant space was renovated into a “white box” condition. That means a restaurant operator would have to decorate and bring in a variety of equipment. The county was unable to find a restaurant operator for the space.

Additional upgrades designed to make the airport space more attractive to restaurateurs didn't result in any takers.

Another topic for the ad hoc committee might be contracting with an outside company for airport management.

In that scenario, the county would retain ownership of the airport, but the contractor would run the day-to-day operations.

It's unknown when the committee will be formed. Smith said he would expect it to include county supervisors and community members.

History and economics

Officials often refer to the airport as an economic development tool.

In August 1929, a story in The Janesville Gazette announced that "Preliminary work on a comprehensive survey to determine the feasibility of establishing a Class AAA airport here has been ordered by a group of Janesville businessmen, according to an announcement made today by Dar Vriesman, manager of the Janesville Chamber of Commerce."

The story showed the early importance of an airport to the economy. The cost of the survey, the story said, was being paid for by "public spirited Janesville businessmen" and its modest goal was to ensure "Janesville's future as an air center."

In the 1920s, the city had two airports, one near the current location of the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport and one near Highway 26. The Janesville City Airport, as it was called, was located on land now occupied by the Prent Corporation. That airport operated until the early 1960s.

Those early airports were important to the economy in their own ways. In 1930, city officials scrambled to get lighting for their airport so it would become a stop on the "air mail route." Local businesses and clubs agreed to support the route. Another story from 1930 reported that "Factories back air mail route." 

That story said: "That Janesville will have a large poundage of air mail to be sent out on the first flight March 1 appears certain with the promise of the city's leading manufacturers and organizations. ... Taking the lead in pushing air mail, the Lions Club has agreed to send by airmail a special post card to all Lions clubs in the country. Thus approximately 1,800 cards will be distributed."

In 1947, the current airport opened. It was located across from the older site.

On May 14, 1950, in an event that "rivaled the coming of the railroads," the new facility was dedicated. The airport, which was to include passenger service, was celebrated as an economic boon to the county.

Passenger service was a part of the airport well into 1989, according to a history on the airport's website.

But the airport continued to be an important part of the local economy in other ways.

In 2003, $13.7 million in upgrades resulted in a longer runway and one that could carry more weight. The Rock County Airport became the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport to "more accurately reflect the types of extended aviation and business markets currently serving the airport.

In 2012, the airport broke ground on a $3.2 million project to upgrade its terminal buildings.

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