Posted 4/29/2013 12:00 am
Updated 12 months ago
On a brisk, sun-charged day last week, workmen on ladders were hoisting letters onto the giant sign telling visitors they’re entering the precincts of the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport.
The former president and the former secretary of state are scheduled to attend a May 3 event marking the completion of a $67 million renovation and formally dedicating the Little Rock National Airport’s new name.
It’s a name prompting smirks by some of the usual Arkansas-bashing suspects — the New York Daily News last week devoted 300 words to the jokes conflating the Bill & Hill name to Hillbilly Airport. But if airport officials are aware of the joshing, they’re not letting on.
Instead, for airport officials, the occasion presents an opportunity to showcase Phase 1 of the airport commission’s “Vision 2020” plan: a larger, lighter and brighter lobby, a sophisticated baggage-screening system and, of course, the international cachet of the Clinton connection.
Kay Kelley Arnold, chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, noted that the ticket lobby was 40 years old. “We’ve nearly tripled the number of yearly enplaned passengers since the lobby opened in 1972,” she said. “The improved lobby is modern, larger and will set an architectural standard that will be used throughout future construction.”
(For more from Arnold, see this week's Exec Q&A.)
For the airport’s executive director, Ron Mathieu, the renovation helps the airport — the state’s “front door” — establish a sense of place and provides travelers with a better airport experience.
Both Mathieu and Arnold cited the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, as one to emulate. Mathieu went so far as to count monitors to ensure Little Rock’s airport surpassed Austin.
The welcome starts in the lobby with a giant mural photograph of a night-time Little Rock skyline on the east wall. And airport officials are working with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city of Little Rock and the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism to highlight photos of Arkansas attractions throughout the airport, complete with narratives describing them. In addition, a message of welcome from the mayor appears on the electronic sign leading travelers from the gates to baggage claim.
Said airport spokesman Shane Carter: “We really tried to capture the various geographic areas of the state and be able to show that experience to those who walk through.”
“It’s interesting because we didn’t really have all of this technology before and so we tended to act as just an airport, as just a transportation hub,” Mathieu said. “Well, now that we have all these mediums of communication for customers, it really has brought us much closer to CVB, chamber, city, state Parks & Tourism and so forth because we are, as we should be, an arm of the tourist and tourism activity in not only the city but the state as well.”
And, Carter added, the airport has completed the renovation without taking on any new debt. In fact, in February, the airport paid off about $6.9 million in bonds issued in 1999, years ahead of the scheduled payoff in 2019. The action saved the airport about $2.1 million in debt service, Mathieu said.
He added that the airport is scheduled to pay off a 2003 bond issue in 2015 and a 2007 bond issue in 2016 or 2017. “At that point we’ll be debt-free,” he said. “And to my knowledge we’ll be the only small-hub airport in the nation that’s completely debt-free.”
Although Phase 1 will be complete May 3, airport staff will have little time to reflect on their accomplishments; Phase 1A is planned to begin immediately after the dedication.
This smaller — $3.1 million — phase includes a new color scheme for the baggage claim area — one, Mathieu said, conducive to stress-reduction — and a recharging station in the concourse for business and other travelers to recharge their smartphones, laptops and tablets. That’s in addition to a renovation of the restrooms.
The airport officials’ emphasis on careful financial management is likely a response to a number of news accounts in the past few years highlighting missteps (a $40,000 airport sponsorship of Little Rock Christian School’s football field in 2010, for example) and expensed purchases that some have considered excessive (including first-class plane tickets).
Standard & Poor’s rates the airport’s revenue bonds an A minus positive, which Carter noted made it the only small-hub airport “with a positive financial outlook.”
Both Mathieu and Arnold stressed the airport’s role — what they consider its pre-eminent role — in the community as “an economic engine.”
Asked whether it has a role other than as transportation hub, Arnold said in an email to Arkansas Business, “The airport’s main goal is to be an economic engine. The state estimates that Clinton National makes a $1.2 billion impact annually. During times of economic distress, it’s our job to stimulate the economy, which we did with our current construction initiative.
“Following the recession, the airport generated an additional $67 million in construction that provided good-paying jobs to many contractors and disadvantaged business enterprises from throughout central Arkansas.”
In an interview, Mathieu stayed on message but directly addressed criticism of airport spending practices:
“The most important thing that the airport does, which most people don’t really think about, is to be an economic generator for the community. In the past I’ve been criticized [by people] saying, ‘You know, we’re in a recession, Ron. How can you be spending this money when you’re in a recession?’
“Well, the reality of the matter is that that’s exactly when we need to be spending money because if our primary job is to be an economic generator for the community then when the economics in the community is bad and we’re in pretty good shape, that’s when you need to really expedite those projects that you’re doing, for a couple of reasons. No. 1, you get better value. And No. 2, you’re making a positive economic impact to the community.”
That out of the way, Mathieu, asked what’s next for the airport, said that once Phase 1A was complete, it may be time to pause and reflect, to seek to determine what the public and the airlines want next in a 21st century airport.
Arnold, noting the quick turn from Phase 1 to Phase 1A said, “While our passengers reach their destinations, we, as a Commission, feel we never reach ours. The commission is always looking ahead to what it needs to do to improve passengers’ experiences.”
And if former Arkansan, former First Lady, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does make a play for president in 2016, as some speculate, win or lose the airport’s new name will stay relevant.