The letters from the corporate executives to North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith were scathing.
Steve Williams, chairman and CEO of Maverick Transportation, described his company’s efforts to make a good impression on customers from all over North America, writing “where we live and how we live sends a clear message to these potential customers and existing customers related to … our passion for doing things the right way.”
But there was a problem, a big problem. “The only exception to this well-choreographed image is the FBO [fixed-base operation] at the North Little Rock Airport,” Williams wrote. “Why do I continue to use this facility? There is only one reason and that is because of the job that the personnel have provided for my company and family for years. Unfortunately we have reached a breaking point.”
The facilities at the North Little Rock Municipal Airport are inadequate and shabby, embarrassingly so, the executives told the mayor. “We are the largest general aviation airport in the state and have the worst facilities in the state,” wrote Rick Ashley, principal and owner of the Ashley Group.
“The City of North Little Rock is at a crossroads — you have something to build on, the question is — will you,” wrote Dennis Oakley, president of transportation company Bruce Oakley Inc., which, like Maverick and the Ashley Group, is based in North Little Rock. “I firmly believe the North Little Rock Airport can be an incubator for economic development and growth but not in its current condition.”
The letters were written at Smith’s request. He’d heard complaints about the airport, but last fall he asked some of the critical executives to put their concerns in writing, into a form he could take to the City Council. They did.
In February, the council, by a vote of 6-1, approved a resolution of “intent” for a $4 million bond issue to fund improvements at the airport. The resolution allows Smith to take the next step in the process: determining the cost and terms of a bond issue through discussions with Little Rock law firm Friday Eldredge & Clark and Stephens Inc. Moving past that step will require another vote of the City Council.
“I’ve known of this need for a long, long time, because the airport has kind of taken a back seat to everything else over the last 30 years, or even more than that,” Smith told Arkansas Business. “And when it finally got to the point that I was embarrassed for our city, I asked those three companies to tell their story to me so I could share it with the council.”
“It’s not even an average FBO,” he said. “It’s a D-minus.”
And in what’s now a global economy, communities throughout the South are doing everything they can to show the world that they’re progressive cities, Smith said.
He can take visitors to North Little Rock on a tour of downtown “and they’re going to be able to see that we’re progressive, but when they land out here at the airport — you know you only have one opportunity to make a first impression and that’s not a good first impression,” he said.
Smith considers the airport an “economic development engine” for a city, noting that Maverick, the Ashley Group and Bruce Oakley alone are responsible for at least 3,000 jobs.
“That’s our responsibility, I think, to make the atmosphere of our city conducive to maintaining current businesses and their local growth and enticing new people to come and invest their money and hire our citizens,” he said.
The envisioned airport improvements include a new 5,900-SF fixed-base operation building, a new 10,400-SF corporate hangar to house about six more corporate planes and the replacement of 1940s-era hangars with 12 T-hangars that house aircraft in an alternating nose-to-tail configuration to save space.
The North Little Rock Municipal Airport, a general aviation airport at 8200 Remount Road, averages about 56,000 “operations” — takeoffs and landings — a year. The 800-acre airport, which opened in 1960, is the base of about 20 corporate jets, and it’s home to two fixed-base operators, or FBOs: North Little Rock Jet Center and Barrett Aviation.
The Arkansas Department of Aeronautics estimated the airport’s economic output in 2017 at about $15 million, and it supports about 150 jobs with a payroll of $6.2 million.
At many municipal airports, the city operates the FBO, with the sale of fuel being a major source of revenue, said Clay Rogers, director of the North Little Rock airport. That’s not the case for North Little Rock. However, the city does own the two buildings occupied by North Little Rock Jet Center and Barrett Aviation, which lease them.
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The airport also leases buildings to several enterprises, including the North Little Rock Electric Department and Central Arkansas Water. Most of the airport’s operating budget comes from rents on those buildings and hangar rents. It also gets about $100,000 annually from the city.
In about 2000, the city began working to develop the airport as more of a corporate hub, Rogers said, “taking advantage of what an airport does for commerce. And since then the airport has grown dramatically.”
The airport houses about 200 aircraft, Rogers said. Its hangars are full, according to the mayor.
Taggart Architects of North Little Rock has been hired to draw up plans for the airport improvements. The next step, Smith said, is for Taggart to draw up tentative but more detailed plans for the upgrades. The mayor thinks that will take about 45 days and then he can present the plans to the council, in the hope that it will give him the go-ahead for the bond issue and the $4 million in improvements.
“That airport is all about economic development,” Smith said.