By summer’s end, a serene area south of Conway, near the banks of the Arkansas River, will be home to a rotating fleet of corporate jets and private planes.
The area, known as the Lollie Bottoms, was chosen to be the site of Conway’s new municipal airport, a site intended to replace the aging Dennis F. Cantrell Field, which was in the middle of the growing city.
City officials say the $30 million project, despite being $80,000 over budget, will bring economic development to the city by attracting corporate customers, and it will solve serious safety issues present at the current site.
Since it was constructed in the late 1930s, the original airstrip has been swallowed by the city, rendering it unable to expand to meet the needs of the companies that want to fly planes in and out of Conway.
“It’s still functional, but the key to our need is the safety issue,” said Jack Bell, assistant to the mayor. “Over the years, there’s been a freeway built at one end and residential and industrial areas at the other end. It’s reduced the functional length of the runway.”
Plans for a new airport have been discussed since at least the 1970s, but the airport’s shortcomings were highlighted in 2007 when a plane crashed into a residence near the airport, killing the pilot and a woman in the home, and again in 2012, when another pilot died after his plane’s engine failed.
“It’s just too closed-in,” Bell said of the current site. “The [Federal Aviation Administration] realized that and is working with us to build a new one.”
A Growing Budget
In 2012, the city set up a seven-person airport advisory commission to help with the project.
Bill Hegeman, a member of the commission and a previous chairman of the Conway Development Corp., said the process has taken a long time to break ground mainly because it was tough to find a suitable location.
“We looked at a number of different sites,” he said. “What makes this site so attractive is there’s not a lot of residential development around it, just open fields at the present time.”
But costs for the project have always been an issue. In late 2012, it was estimated to be a $20 million project, and the budget has risen by $10 million since then.
Much of that price tag came from acquiring the 380 acres of land at Lollie Bottoms, as well as grading, paving and lighting the runways. The airport, which is being designed and overseen by the engineers at Garver of North Little Rock, will have 36 “tee” hangars at a cost of $1.9 million, a $649,000 community hangar and a $300,000 fueling facility. The main terminal, being designed by Sowell Architects Inc. and built by Corco Construction, both of Conway, will cost $1.6 million. The city paid $1.5 million to improve some roads leading out to the site, and more improvements will be needed in the future.
Weaver Bailey Contractors of El Paso (White County) is paving the 5,500-foot concrete runway — compared with 4,875 feet at the current site — with options to extend it to 7,000 feet in the future. It will be 100 feet wide, compared with 75 feet at the current airport.
The main safety improvement is that “there will be nothing to run into out there,” Bell said.
“In fact, in addition to 5,500 feet of pavement, there is a 1,000-foot safety zone on the other end,” Hegeman said.
Funds are coming from a variety of sources. The FAA originally agreed to pay 95 percent of the costs of buying the land, paving runways and building roads within the airport boundaries. But last year, the administration dropped that to 90 percent, meaning it’s paying about $20 million.
Another $6.1 million will come from the sale of the old airport property, which is underway.
The rest of the costs will be paid by the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics and the city itself. Conway Corp., a nonprofit company that owns a franchise for the city-owned utilities, will provide a water line to the airport.
But even with all of the outside help, the non-FAA part of the project is still coming in at just about $80,000 over budget. Bell said the city is looking for additional funding sources, like grants, to fix that problem, and the city may push some budget items to 2015, when the airport is expected to be producing revenue.
So how does this huge expense make sense for the town?
According to Conway Aviation Services, the private business that runs the current airport, the airport had about 16,000 flight operations in 2013, including both takeoff and landing operations. By comparison, Little Rock’s Clinton National Airport had 97,303.
Bell said the airport’s customers are “mostly businesses,” including large companies with Conway locations like Southwestern Energy Co., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Acxiom Corp. Some smaller aircraft are used by local businesses, and there are some recreational pilots as well.
He said a big part of the need for the project is economic development. “We want to attract some corporations who might be interested in Conway,” he said. “Like Southwestern, who want to land their corporate jets here.”
“In the past, when we’ve had companies look at Conway, there’s been the limitation of the existing runway,” Hegeman said. “They’ve not been able to bring their aircraft into the Conway airport, so they’ve had to land in Little Rock and commute back and forth. We think that with the new facility, that will not be the case. They’ll be able to fly right into the new airport. It will be an opportunity to show Conway much better. That’s very important when you’re involved in economic development.”
There’s also the potential, in the future, for businesses to locate on the airport’s grounds.
“It’s a beautiful area,” Bell said. “I think it’s good that it will be a self-sustaining project. There won’t be any general funds devoted to the operation of the airport or to the construction of it. It’ll be another addition to Conway that will help with our development.”
Bill Cope, who has owned Conway Aviation Services for 15 years — and will lose his job when the new airport is complete, as it will be a publicly operated facility — said the project is “a long time coming.”
Some nostalgic pilots will be reluctant to lose the old Cantrell Field, he said, but “from a commerce standpoint, and from an economic development standpoint, it’s a wonderful thing. … With the growth of Faulkner County and the growth of Conway, it has to happen for our city and for our county to continue to grow.”
Takeoff for Central Landing
The fate of Conway’s current airport is inextricably linked to the construction of the new one.
According to Bell, the Conway Development Corp. has partnered with Jim Wilson & Associates LLC of Montgomery, Alabama, to redevelop the old airport into a commercial mixed-use district.
The partnership, dubbed Cantrell Field Joint Venture LLC, is paying $6.1 million for the site, all of which is supposed to be funneled back into the cost of the new airport.
The 151-acre site will become “Central Landing,” a $100 million economic development plan that is considered to be the largest ever in the city.
“The preliminary plans are to do a lifestyle center-type development,” Bell said. “The city of Conway is making some street improvements in that area to be more accessible for the shopping public.”
The project will connect with The Commons, a nearby shopping center that includes a Target and several other large retail stores.
Bell said that the Cantrell partnership will be able to take possession of the airport in September, at which time the old infrastructure will be torn down.
“There are a few privately owned hangars that the owners may take with them, but for the most part everything will be cleared out,” Bell said.