Sussex County's airport may be suffering from an identity crisis.
That's the bottom line from a recently completed business plan for the airport developed by R.A. Wiedmann and Associates and funded by the Delaware Department of Transportation.
Randal Wiedmann told council said a good first step would be renaming the facility to promote what he called a new brand. With Sussex counties in New Jersey and New York, the name doesn't even locate the airport within the region, he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
$139 million – Amount spent by businesses at airport and industrial park.
$51 million – Wages paid to airport and industrial park employees.
$6.9 million – Amount of state and local taxes generated by the airport and industrial park businesses.
872 – Jobs at airport and industrial park.
For the county airport to stand out among its competition, its brand should clearly identify the identify area it serves. He suggested names such as Southern Delaware Regional Airport, Southern Delaware Coastal Airport or Delaware Coastal Airport. He said the county could capitalize on an airport brand with its own logo and website and an enhanced marketing campaign.
“This is a very well run airport,” he said. “This is what most counties would love to have; you are in a fantastic position. If you tweak it, you can do better.”
Those tweaks are improving management with emphasis on increasing revenue.
The airport property is home to Sussex County industrial park and PATS Aircraft, one of the largest employers in Sussex.
County, state and federal officials recently funded a 500-foot extension of the airport's main runway to 5,500 feet. Plans are underway to provide another 500-foot extension. Sussex is one of four airports in the region with a runway of 5,500 feet or more: Dover Air Force Base, Easton and Salisbury are the others.
Wiedmann said now that the runway extension is complete, it's a perfect time to rebrand the airport. “Now is the time. It's an opportunity to crow about it. This is new,” he said. “Look at what we can do now.”
Increased revenue could cut deficit
The airport traditionally operates at a deficit, Wiedmann said. Over the past five years, the deficit has averaged about $300,000, and this year's deficit is expected to follow the trend. Expenses average about $825,000 per year and revenues average about $533,000 per year.
Rebranding and increasing revenue could, over time, reverse that trend, but it would not be a rapid process, he said. Even with the deficit, he said money generated by the airport and businesses in the airport's industrial park in taxes, wages and equipment and supplies is $197 million per year with more than 870 jobs.
County Administrator Todd Lawson said costs to operate and maintain the airport include personnel; maintenance of airfield systems, such as airfield lighting and security systems; hundreds of acres of grass cutting and fence preservation; maintenance of county-owned buildings; utility costs for airfield lighting, street lights, and sewer services; and operation of the county's industrial park water plant.
Wiedmann said the county should consider outsourcing routine maintenance jobs as a potential way to save money.
Lawson said as a small general aviation airport, revenue comes mainly from land and building rentals, along with a fee charged for each gallon of aviation fuel sold at the airport. "Although the airport operates at a deficit, it has a significant economic impact on the region. Regionally, the airport's aviation activity alone supports nearly 900 jobs and generates nearly $140 million in spending,” Lawson said.
To increase revenue, Wiedmann advocates attracting more corporate aviation to the airport and improving promotion of tourism involving the airport. Only two jets are currently based at the Sussex airport.
Wiedmann said 6 million people visit the resort area each year and there are more than 35,000 second homes in Sussex County. He said those part-time residents spend $890 million a year in Sussex. Offering prepackaged tours including air and ground transportation is an untapped revenue source, he said.
Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said the value of dramatically increasing the number of tourists coming to the beach area is open to debate.
“I don't know if we need 7 million or 8 million visitors; I think we need to do a better job with the 6 million we get,” he said. “We already have infrastructure issues in the coastal area.”
Wiedmann said only a small percentage of tourists would fly to Georgetown. “But it's a highly affluent percentage, and the county would benefit on how much they spend,” he said.
Other ways to improve revenue are building and renting additional hangar space; adjusting rates and fees; expanding the industrial park; and developing a flight school. Wiedmann said the county could investigate expansion of the Delaware State University flight program to the Sussex airport.
He said the county could also approach air cargo carriers to stage planes at the airport. “They may not be able to afford space at JFK Airport, but they could afford space here,” he said.