By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EAST ALTON — The year 2016 is settling in as a perfect landing at St. Louis Regional Airport, with major honors for the airport and its chief tenant and significant economic development progress.
The facility was named Reliever Airport of the Year last month, the second time since 2007.
Airport Director of Aviation David Miller said the operation has enjoyed a string of recent achievements.
“We were successful in getting one of the Captains of the River Bend Awards from the RiverBend Growth Association (in January) and to top that off we got this award from the Illinois Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics,” he said. “It was a pleasure to get this.”
Around 20 airports compete for the Reliever of the Year honor.
“They’re all friends of ours. This is one of those awards where when somebody gets it you’re glad for them,” he said.
Reliever airports are defined as those that serve to relieve congestion at nearby, larger airports, in this case Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
“When you get into communities of that size, big airplanes and small airplanes just don’t mix,” he said. In the metropolitan area, the Downtown St. Louis Airport in Cahokia and the Spirit of St. Louis in Chesterfield, as well as Regional, are designated as Lambert relievers.
Miller credits several things for the state recognition, among them safety.
“Safety is paramount, and we’ve got a very good safety record here,” he said. “Two or three years ago we got a new fire truck because the two we had before that — we still have one of them — were manufactured in the mid-’70s and rebuilt in the ‘90s.”
Additionally, all of the airport’s maintenance crews are certified by the FAA as airport rescue firefighters.
“We don’t have a separate fire department, but our fire protection support is available 24/7,” Miller said.
Economic development also plays into it. The Airport Authority’s work to develop the nearby, former Wayside Estates subdivision factored in, he believes.
“Even though they are not turning dirt over there yet, we’ve gone through all the machinations to get that rezoned, recertified and we’ve got a commercial developer on board.”
J.G. Grewe of St. Louis, the developer, is now in a due diligence phase involving two potential anchor tenants, neither of which has been revealed.
“These diligence phases are lengthy and they are expensive (in terms of fees paid by the developer), and it takes about 15 months to do it. I would say they are on month three,” Miller said.
Wayside is located west of Illinois Route 111, on 42-43 acres of land that was right off the extended centerline of the airport’s primary instrument runway. A noise study showed the airport was exceeding limits, and the airport landed grant funding to buy up the subdivision and relocate the residents.
The airport subsequently chose to lease the land rather than sell it because Regional will be able to keep the lease money, as long as it’s used for aeronautical uses.
The lease begins only when Grewe officially breaks ground. Initially, Grewe will have to tackle at least 10 acres for development. Then the company has the option, every few years, to develop an additional two acres. As long as it keeps doing so, the development could continue several years, Miller said.
Short of that, the airport can reclaim the land and pursue other alternatives, Miller said.
A deal with Grewe was first struck about a decade ago, and Miller said at least five subsequent years were spent getting FAA approval.
Miller said the airport’s economic recognition also takes into account the recent successes of West Star Aviation, the airport’s biggest tenant, and the fledgling Big River Aviation, which works on smaller planes and has brought back flight training to the airport.
Big River is hoping to locate in its own hangar, after operating to this point in three small T-hangars.
“Hopefully we’ll see dirt starting to turn this summer,” Miller said. Paul Voorhees, the owner of Big River, found a company in Idaho that will make a prefab hangar to his specifications and ship it here. A local construction company would then assemble it, after a foundation and utilities are in place.
On a final point of positive news, Miller said West Star was just honored for the second year in a row as Pro Pilot Magazine’s favorite vendor among MROs — Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul facilities.
“They are our anchor tenant and our auditors have documented that about 60 percent of our revenue comes through West Star in one form or another, whether it’s leases or access fees or fuel flowage fees,” he said.