A municipally-owned, general aviation airport can be a curious thing for residents who don’t fly. It can easily be perceived as a major expense that serves only corporate travellers and weekend aviators.
That was the mindset of some people who lived in Lee’s Summit in the US state of Missouri when the concept of expanding the Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport was first introduced 20 years ago.
City leaders knew the airport’s potential as a tool for local economic development. But for a long time, well before the project team came on board, there was no consensus on how to move forward.
The airport’s neighbours expressed concerns that airport improvements could mean additional traffic, more noise and disruption to their daily lives, while elected officials were attempting to balance resident concerns with the cost of the proposed improvements.
They were also aware, regardless of the decision on airport expansion, there were safety improvements that would need to be made.
Most of the airport opposition at that time was based on concerns about the extent and cost of the improvements. So, after the project team identified their concerns – cost, safety and deficient standards – the team put together a strategy for putting those issues to rest.
The city hired a consultant to develop a business plan outlining growth opportunity and the positive impact each would have on the local economy. And once they had a better understanding of the airport’s potential, the local chamber of commerce and members of the business community became more vocal in their support and helped take the message to the community.
At that point, there was momentum for the airport improvements, although there were still peaks and valleys waiting on the horizon.
The centrepiece of the airport’s Master Plan, which was adopted in 2000, was the extension of the north/south runway (18-36). At the time, the airport was classified as a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) B-II facility and primarily served smaller, propeller-driven aircraft.
Expanding the 4,014-foot runway to more than 5,500 feet would allow the airport to be reclassified as a C-II facility.
“The key component to really getting the improvements going was the 2010 Airport Business Plan. It suggested that the runway extension should be made the number one priority to help the airport become financially self-sufficient,” said City of Lee’s Summit deputy director of public works, Bob Hartnett.
Although the business plan and subsequent public information campaign had served to paint airport expansion in a more favourable light, the FAA’s funding offer for the airport project was still met with opposition.
The primary concern from City Council at that time was what the project would ultimately cost and how much the city’s share would be. The consultant once again stepped up to present its case, armed with facts and figures that could not be denied.
The project team put together a 30% plan document that included rock-solid estimates for costs. This went very far in establishing credibility in the capital budget the project team was presenting.
The document divided the work up into small, interchangeable parts, allowing the city flexibility on implementation. Related projects were categorised and prioritised, providing the city a menu of options that still exist today as part of its Capital Improvement Plan. Each item includes projected costs and can be easily updated to reflect current prices.
“The 30% plan helped to get everyone on the same page, explore options and sequencing, and provided a high level of confidence in the projected costs,” stated Hartnett.
It was decided at this point to first address safety concerns by upgrading the airport to current FAA standards, while preserving the airport’s capability to grow. City Council agreed to move forward with the process of acquiring 60 parcels of land, a significant challenge that stretched over several years.
The runway extension also required the relocation of a major road just outside the airport’s current runway safety area, which the city was able to accomplish as part of an integrated transportation programme aimed at improving access within the city and in the vicinity of the airport. Aware of the scepticism that might still remain, the city made community relations and public information a priority throughout the project.
“We developed a multi-faceted approach to communications before, during and after the runway project. It was designed to engage all stakeholders and the community. We wanted to make sure we were being good neighbours,” said airport manager, John Ohrazda.
Maintaining good relationships with nearby residents was a priority. The airport manager personally met with neighbours to inform them of construction activities that could result in increased traffic and noise. Pilots were also encouraged to be mindful of residential areas in determining their flight paths.
In order to keep them updated on construction progress, periodic tenant meetings were held for airport customers and its Fixed Based Operators (FBOs).
Phasing and runway shutdown plans were discussed prior to construction, with opportunities to address concerns and provide feedback. Once construction began, regular updates on activities were provided via email, social media and the airport website.
More than 150 people gathered at the Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport in September 2017 for the ribbon cutting of the new 5,501-foot runway. Ohrazda reminded those in attendance that the runway was essentially 20 years in the making.
It was a day to mark a milestone, but the occasion was very much about celebrating the airport’s future.
It’s been ten years since the business plan was first introduced. If the last six months are any indication, an increase in fuel sales and traffic, are pointing to its success. Since the opening of the runway, further improvements have been unveiled.
In August 2018, the airport cut the ribbon on two new T-hangars with 14 units each located in the northwest quadrant of the airport. Further improvements are also underway in the form of two capital projects.
The first involves a taxiway relocation to achieve the FAA-required separation distance from the newly extended runway. The second will be an expansion of the airport’s fuel storage capacity.
As with previous efforts, the airport has been proactive in engaging with its stakeholders to explain the impacts and subsequent benefits of the improvements.
“Throughout this process, we have had outstanding working relationships with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Missouri Department of Transportation,” noted Hartnett.
“As we continue to improve the airport, we look forward to continuing these partnerships.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the experiences at the Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport. One of the most important is that a municipal airport can position itself to be self-sufficient, and even an economic development engine for a community.
Equally important is the importance of developing hard, quantitative data that demonstrate beyond a doubt that plans make financial sense, then using those facts to stay on a steady course to implement change.
In both cases, it’s critical to have a consultant that can not only handle the engineering challenges associated with infrastructure improvements but can also make the business case and will be a committed advocate for its client.
It’s important that airports know that with the right plans in place, they can control their own destinies. In the US, the FAA does control the funding and it is very important to be responsible stewards of that public money, but ultimately the airport leadership and the community are the ones in control.