Jefferson airport ready for takeoff
By ANDREW MCGINN
Jim Forbes admittedly has a sentimental attachment to the Jefferson Municipal Airport.
“That’s where I took my first airplane ride,” he recalled recently, “on my dad’s lap in a little yellow Piper J-3 Cub.”
It was 1950, he was 5 and the airport was brand new.
However, the runway remains the length it was during the Truman administration — and that’s where Forbes, as chairman of the Jefferson Airport Commission, stops waxing nostalgic.
A plan to extend the runway 900 more feet within the next several years isn’t optional.
“We’ve got to do it,” Forbes said. “Otherwise, companies that might want to settle in Greene County, they’re going to fly right over the top of Jefferson.”
The city in late November approved a $2.3 million, five-year capital improvement plan for the airport that will make Don Monthei Airfield accessible to business jets for the first time.
The plan, which is under way with the acquisition of the required land to the southeast, will ultimately lengthen the runway from 3,200 feet to 4,000 feet.
The upgrades are solely for economic development, Forbes said.
“Corporate executives very rarely come to town on a Greyhound bus,” remarked Forbes, 68, a local chiropractor.
“We don’t even have the Greyhound bus anymore,” he added.
Plans to extend the runway to 4,000 feet aren’t new. In fact, they’re 50 years old, Forbes said.
But only in recent years — an era in which a business can locate in Greene County for its schools and cost of living, yet still be engaged nationally and even internationally — has it gained a sense of urgency.
So until someone invents a “Star Trek”-style transporter, it would seem a business-level airport is the only answer.
“We probably didn’t deserve one up until now,” confessed Ken Paxton, executive director of the Greene County Development Corp. “We didn’t have the spectacular growth we’re having right now.
“Now, not only do we deserve it, we need it.”
John Deere now has a much larger footprint in Greene County after its purchase this year of Bauer Built Manufacturing in Paton.
Deere and Bauer had been building co-branded planters at the Bauer facility in Paton since 2002.
That’s far from the only success story.
Strength-training equipment engineered and manufactured in Jefferson by Power Lift since 1999 is in use in 18 countries, and is used by a who’s who of pro sports franchises, including the Dallas Cowboys, Boston Celtics and St. Louis Cardinals.
Scranton Manufacturing is a leading maker of garbage trucks.
American Athletic Inc. has deep Jefferson roots going back to 1954, but was acquired in 2004 by Russell Brands — which, in turn, is owned by Fruit of the Loom.
Fruit of the Loom, in turn, is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
From its Jefferson facility, Russell manufactures athletic equipment bearing the AAI and Spalding trademarks.
With a business-level airport, Paxton indicated, Greene County’s lack of a four-lane highway might even be forgiven by businesses looking to relocate.
“If you can get business jets in, regional headquarters will move here,” Paxton said. “Corporate wants to get in and get out.”
Currently, visiting executives are forced to use airports in nearby cities.
And what’s the saying — time is money.
“Quite often,” Forbes said, “they are using Carroll or Fort Dodge because we’ve only got 3,200 feet here. Those people who are interested in doing future business in Greene County, they’re going to want to drop in with their executives.”
A small business jet could technically land on Jefferson’s current runway, Forbes said, but there’s not much wiggle room — and if it’s wet, forget about it.
However, once here, they currently won’t find even a drop of jet fuel.
Improving the airport isn’t just good business sense, according to Forbes, it’s common sense, considering the Federal Aviation Administration picks up 90 percent of the tab.
Each year, the FAA makes money available to local airports for improvement projects, requiring only that municipalities put up a 10-percent match.
If that federal money isn’t used after a certain point, Forbes said, it either can be redirected to another airport in Iowa or else it returns to Washington, D.C.
“By dang, you better take advantage of it,” Forbes said. “Do we want to keep giving money to surrounding airports to entice new business?”
As Paxton noted, a business-level airport might even attract high rollers to the potential casino near the intersection of U.S. Highway 30 and Iowa Highway 4.
With its current runway length, according to a 2009 report prepared for the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Jefferson airport contributes about $600,000 annually to the local economy from on-airport activity and visitor spending.
“It’s busier than what a lot of people think,” Forbes said. “Small planes that come and go don’t make a lot of noise.”
By comparison, though, Carroll’s municipal airport has two paved runways — one at 5,500 feet, the other at 3,300 feet — and has an annual economic impact of $1.8 million.
This past fall, the Jefferson airport acquired the first 13½ acres of privately owned land needed to expand.
An additional 30 acres remain to be purchased, Forbes said.
“You don’t want to get into imminent domain unless you have to,” he said.
The FAA, he said, does the negotiating.
The runway extension also will require the county to relocate a nearby gravel road.
“It’s going to be good for the community,” Forbes said, “whether they believe it or not.”
But, even agricultural spray planes “are getting bigger and heavier, too,” Forbes said, meaning it would help in general to have the extra length.
The overall project will give Paxton something to sell when he tries to lure new businesses to the county.
“I’d put that in every presentation I made to businesses,” Paxton explained. “That would be in my top four or five.”
Extending the runway isn’t a guarantee that Jefferson’s airport will turn into a jet hub, Forbes cautioned.
But, he said, there must be an attempt to create that kind of portal into the community.
“This place is going to blossom,” he said. “The feeling is just there.”