Williams Gateway Airport is often characterized as the East Valley’s future mother lode for jobs and development.
The airport, coupled with Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, is located in Mesa at the junction of the East Valley’s largest city with the towns of Gilbert and Queen Creek.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker has on several occasions pointed to Williams with the expectation that 100,000 jobs will be created there, putting food on the tables in the tens of thousands of new homes that eventually will be built in the region.
But an independent panel of land development experts last week offered a sobering perspective.
The panelists were brought in from all over the country under the auspices the Urban Land Institute and at the request of stakeholders. They spent an intense week studying a 42-square-mile area which includes the airport, and came up with a series of recommendations that evidently rocked Lynn Kusy, Williams Gateway Airport executive director.
The panel said it was time for the airport authority, consisting of the surrounding East Valley cities, Phoenix and the Gila River Indian Community, to become “more aggressive.”
“Williams Gateway Airport won’t achieve profitability — or even break even (by 2020) — if it continues with business as usual,” panelist and Houston-based planning expert Zane Segal said.
So what needs to be done to end business as usual?
Among the panel’s recommendations, none seemed to take a sharper turn from business as usual than its call for a private company to manage the airport and development of its properties under a shared revenue agreement.
Kusy, whose job could be at stake, was among the first in the crowd to grab the microphone to ask what drove that recommendation. Panelist Alex Rose answered that private firms can maximize revenue and minimize costs.
Rose, vice president of Continental Development Corporation in El Segundo, Calif., called taking the airport’s management private “a forward-looking way to maximize the benefit of that asset.”
The airport’s development is critical to the East Valley’s future. But it’s also a drain on public funds at a time when none of the authority’s East Valley members is flush with tax revenue.
The authority should adopt the panel’s recommendation and go looking for a credible private company to take on the job. If it can find one, chances for the airport’s success will be improved and in a faster time frame.
If it can’t find a private company willing to invest time and resources into the airport, then expectations will need to be reined in.