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Improvements planned at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport

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ANN MARIE AMES
September 27, 2009
— Air traffic at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport has been dropping since 2002, but county officials say improving the terminal would be one way to turn that around.

In the early part of this decade, General Motors' just-in-time program meant more cargo coming into Janesville through the airport, said Ron Burdick, director of the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.


When the weather or other problems prohibited truck travel, airplanes were used to bring parts to the plant.


"I used to pray for snow," Burdick said.


But as GM got better at getting parts delivered in a timely manner by highway, air traffic started to drop, he said.


The number of operations—takeoffs and landings—at the airport is dwindling, according to county data.


The airport handles cargo, corporate passenger flights, military flights and recreational flights.


Burdick remembers when the airport handled 150,000 operations annually. By 2008, the total had dropped to 48,234.


The cost of learning to fly has gotten prohibitive for many recreational fliers, Burdick said.


And the recent economic downturn has taken its toll, said Steve King Sr. with Janesville Jet.


"It all comes down to the economics in this whole county," King said. "The airport being kind of a public service platform, it suffers when the community suffers."


King describes Janesville Jet as a "concierge service for airports." The business provides food, fuel, meeting rooms, limousine service and other amenities for travelers.


Business is struggling, King said. Commercial and corporate flights are as few as he's ever seen, King said.


As recently as five or six years ago, the airport was home to four fixed-base-operations such as Janesville Jet, King said.


"Now, it's down to one that is hanging in there," King said.


"That's us."


Improvements planned

An airport is often the first—and sometimes only—view travelers have of a city.


In Rock County, that first impression is getting pretty dated, Burdick said.


Located on Janesville's south side, the county-managed airport has runways, taxiways and other infrastructure that is better than most, Burdick said. But the terminal building constructed in 1959 is energy inefficient and outdated, Burdick said.


The Rock County Board on Thursday night voted unanimously to authorize the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics to go into the design phase for two projects:


-- A $100,000 feasibility and conceptual design study for changes and improvements to the terminal.


-- A $90,000 design study for security upgrades.


The cost of the projects would be split 80/20 between the state and county. For it's share, the county would use $38,000 in extra funds from previous bureau of aeronautics projects, according to the summary of the projects.


Having design plans in place will make the county eligible for future state and federal grants and is the first step towards getting the airport ready for the future, Burdick said.


A new look

Burdick describes the terminal at the regional airport as looking like a "1950's" train station. The brick and glass building was designed as a large waiting area and airport office, he said.


Instead, it's the home to Kealy's Kafe, where diners enjoy the view through a glass wall of planes taking off and landing. The glass wall, however, is not energy efficient, Burdick said.


A new state program is making grant money available in annual chunks of $500,000, Burdick said. So, the study would create a plan for an improved airport and divide it into $600,000 chunks. If plans moved forward, the state would kick in $500,000 for each project, and the county would pick up the other $100,000.


The bureau of aeronautics will get to work right away on the study, Burdick said. The county could start budgeting for construction in 2011, he said.


"It's been a long time coming," Burdick said.


Building for the future

Business is down, but the best way to pick it up is to keep the airport in good working condition, King and Burdick agreed.


"As the movement progresses east to west and the Chicago/Milwaukee corridor fills up, we start to look a lot better to corporate fliers," Burdick said. "It's a lot easier to get in and out at our airport than in Chicago."


King said infrastructure at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport is among the best in Wisconsin.


The important thing is to be ready when a major corporation takes notice of Janesville's excellent location for business, King said. The proximity to Interstate and rail travel as well as the millions of square feet of "empty boxes" (commercial businesses) would be "a wonderful opportunity for somebody, sometime," King said.


"This is a logistical dream waiting to happen. But who, what, where, when? That we don't know."



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