By DENNIS GRUBAUGH – Illinois Business Journal
BETHALTO — St. Louis Regional Airport soared to new highs in the past year and has no prospects for grounding in 2015.
Its biggest tenant, West Star Aviation, is coming off a record year of revenue, during which its local hangar space was increased by 47,000 square feet, nearly doubling its workspace.
One of Region’s biggest aeronautical projects, relocation of a utility runway, was largely completed after years of effort.
And its largest commercial venture — redevelopment of the Wayside Estate subdivision, which has been years in the making — is close to taking off. A developer who has leased the property is working to convert the 46-acre site for multiple new businesses.
Director of Aviation Dave Miller said all of the projects are the results of years of effort.
He’s particularly pleased with the status of West Star Aviation, which now accounts for 60 percent of the airport authority’s annual revenue. More than 300 workers are employed at the operation, which refurbishes a variety of jets and airplanes, many under major contracts.
“I just had a meeting with their CEO last week, and he was grinning from ear to ear,” Miller said. “He told me that in 2014 they’d topped $96 million in revenue.”
West Star’s Chief Operating Officer Rodger Renaud said some 40 employees were added to the workforce since the hangar’s dedication last May.
The original estimate was that West Star would gain 50 employees in three years’ time.
“Look in there, it’s wall to wall,” Renaud said during a recent tour, pointing to the hangar full of planes, in various stages of repair. “I’ve got a Bombardier Legacy Global (a large, luxury, long-range business jet) coming in for a three-month job, about $2.2 million. We couldn’t do it without this hangar. If you convert $2.2 million labor over three months, that’s a lot of people.”
West Star also has a contract with the Egyptian Air Force to do nine liaison (noncombat) aircraft and the country’s officials have been so pleased they are committing to several more.
The company is already getting airplanes from Europe and South America and is working on the Russian market, Miller said.
“It is truly a global market,” he added.
Except for its biggest manufacturers, the corporate aircraft industry today exists predominantly on refurbishing aircraft rather than selling new.
In 2008, at the beginning of the recession, a lot of companies went out of business. Others had to restructure, downsizing for the most part. That brought about the availability of used aircraft, at about the same time that demands for such began to increase.
It all worked to West Star’s favor. Even as they refurbish used craft they developed techniques for upgrades that brought favor with companies around the world. Miller cited one big example that has helped his own airport.
“The West Star engineers, bless their hearts, came up with a design to change the instrumental panel for all of the Falcons (aircraft) in the world, from a round dial system to what they call a ‘glass cockpit’ (like a TV screen with the images of the dials on it). They contracted with Honeywell to actually build these units.
West Star entered into a nine-year arrangement with Falcon to adapt all of their cockpits, he said.
“I think they’re about halfway into that nine years, and basically every Falcon in the world is being cycled right here, through East Alton, to get this cockpit done,” Miller said.
The airport played a crucial role in West Star’s recent success, working with the company to get the badly needed hangar built. West Star took out a $5.2 million construction loan, built the hangar, then sold it to the airport, which is now leasing it back to the company.
“Basically, it’s their lease payments that’s paying the bond. It’s a 20-year lease, so at the end of it we’ll own the building lock, stock and barrel,” he said.
West Star’s presence is supporting the surrounding community, and not just by jobs. For every plane being worked on, there is at least one company representative staying on site as a communications liaison with the plane’s owner.
“The fact that somebody stays with the airplane, that generates 1,500 hotel room nights per year right out of the local market,” he said.
West Star was originally Premier Air Center. Corporately, it still goes by that name. It took on the West Star brand name after buying a company with that name in Grand Junction, Colo.
West Star has helped shore up the bottom line of the airport, which is good for taxpayers, since Region is tax-supported. However, that tax money doesn’t go toward operations like salaries, fuel and maintenance.
“We do use it as leverage for federal and state grants. Federal grants now account for about $1 million a year in the airport’s capital improvement budget,” Miller said.
Refurbishments to ramps now allow for “any airplane that’s every been built” to land at St. Louis Regional Airport.
A lot of the ramp area has been worked on since Miller became director in June 2003. But additional safety improvements were ordered at many airports after a plane went off the runway at Midway Airport in Chicago, crashing into a car, killing a young boy in the car.
As a result, the utility runway nearest to Illinois Route 140 was relocated. Some 303 feet was lopped off one end and added to the other end. That triggered the need to adjust the neighboring treeline, relocate runway lighting, move dirt and account for watershed and wildlife. All kinds of federal agencies were involved.
“The construction even had to hold off because of the mating season of the Indiana brown bat. I’m not making that up,” Miller said.
Some $1.5 million in work finished this past summer.
A related project to reroute electrical lines is going to happen this spring, although it has not yet gone out for bids.
Another project on the horizon is installation of an indicator light system on the airport’s east-west runway, which would allow for some U.S. Air Force training to be conducted at night. Lights would be placed at end of Runway 29
If the airport can’t get FAA funding for the lights, it will have to figure out another way to pay for it, Miller said. He estimates the lights alone would be about $50,000.
Miller said the Wayside Estates redevelopment is also moving ahead. It’s a project more than 15 years in making, aimed to clear out a residential neighborhood on the northwest end of the airport grounds and convert it for business use.
A long-term lease exists between the airport and property developer GJ Grewe of St. Louis and because of delays at the federal level was recently extended in time. It was also amended this past month to include two properties that had not previously been a part — an old chiropractic clinic and the old ServiceMaster property that the airport recently purchased.
Those properties are on either side of the Walgreen’s store at the corner of Illinois Routes 111 and 140.
The developer has been close-mouthed about development possibilities, although a strip center or supermarket are among the speculated possibilities, officials have said.
Some 46 acres are included in the overall lease, but redevelopment is to be done in stages.
Under the lease, Grewe has three years to begin development of the first 10 acres. After that timeframe, it has the option to develop five or more additional acres. If the development doesn’t take place within those time restrictions the airport retains the right to seek out another developer.
Not all of the land is developable because of watershed commitments, Miller said.
The airport has worked to clear the Wayside area ever since a fatal jet crash in the neighborhood in 1996. No residences remain.
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