For years, Chandler city and business leaders have dreamed of turning their nearly 50-yearold airport into a thriving employment center.
But it took a freeway, not a runway, to get that dream off the ground.
“As much as we like to think that we drive development, freeways drive development,” said Christine MacKay, Chandler’s economic development specialist. “They always have, and they always will.”
Even before the first off-ramp of the Loop 202 Santan Freeway opened near the airpark in November, city planners, developers and business owners were banking on accessibility that would come with being connected to the Valley’s freeway system. Developers began buying up land along the freeway route starting about three years ago in anticipation of the shopping centers, office parks and industry that are sprouting up in the area.
MacKay, whose job is to draw new industrial and professional development to Chandler, has noticed a drastic change in how she markets Chandler Municipal Airport in recent years.
“Until just the past few years, I could not get anyone interested in the airpark area to save my life,” MacKay said. “There was nothing I could do.”
She remembers just three years ago driving two executives looking for a place to build their corporate headquarters from downtown Chandler to the airport that sits along Germann Road between Gilbert and McQueen roads.
“They told me, ‘I don’t know where you think you’re taking us, but you need to get us back to civilization,’ ” MacKay recalled.
Today, developers and business executives are eating those words as land prices in and around the future 9-square-mile airpark have jumped from about $35,000 an acre to as much as $650,000 an acre.
But while the area is being promoted as an airpark, most of the development currently under way has little if anything to do with aviation.
“The airport may attract certain types of users, but it really isn’t directly related to the airport or designed to accommodate anybody who has to be by the airport,” said Jeff Roberts, vice president for real estate development for Opus West Corp.
His company recently began work on a 90,000-square-foot office building that will be part of the 228-acre Chandler Airport Center business park set between Loop 202 and the airport.
Planners have designated areas adjacent to the runway for socalled “through-the-fence” businesses that need direct access to the runway. One California-based developer, DWO Enterprises, has proposed a 20-acre office and hangar project that would allow businesses that use aviation to have access to the runway.
Right now, there are nearly a dozen commercial and retail developments either under way or going through Chandler’s approval processes. In all, only about a quarter of the entire airpark area has not been spoken for.
Planners expect the airpark to reach buildout by 2025 with about 25,000 jobs — mainly in professional and industrial sectors. But the most dramatic changes to the still predominantly agricultural area will come in the next five years, MacKay said.
“You won’t recognize that area, even like we don’t recognize it from five years ago,” she said.
The airport, built almost 50 years ago for landing crop dusters, is today considered a municipal reliever airport with about 200,000 landings and takeoffs per year. City officials do not expect to ever bring commercial air carriers to the airport, pointing to the proximity of Mesa’s Williams Gateway Airport, which is already in that market.
But Chandler could be asking residents to pay to expand the airport’s runway from its current 4,800 feet to about 5,600 feet in the future. Voters rejected a bond issue in 2000 that would have extended the runway to 6,800 feet.
City officials gave up on ever extending the runway to 6,800 feet when they approved the Crossroads Towne Center at Gilbert and Germann roads. The shopping center is situated toward the northern end of the runway.
“We knew when we let the Vestar project going in . . . with all the residential that’s out there, we’d never get to our ultimate of 6,800 feet. You’d never get citizens to vote for that,” MacKay said.
For comparison, the runway at Williams Gateway is about 10,000 feet long and about 8,200 feet long at Scottsdale Airport.
A runway extension, along with increased hangar space and recommendations to adjusting some landuse designations within the airpark are expected to be discussed when the Chandler City Council considers a new airport master plan this fall.