Aerotropolis Arrival Seems More Likely ECONOMY: 2 Airports Prepare for Bigger Roles By Lou Hirsch South and East County economic development groups are pressing ahead with efforts to turn two small local airports into big regional economic generators by creating the nation’s next “aerotropolis.” Armed with results of a $40,000 joint feasibility study funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the South County Economic Development Council and San Diego East County Economic Development Council will now pursue separate paths to spur new commercial development, respectively, adjacent to the San Diego cityowned Brown Field Municipal Airport in Otay Mesa and the county-owned Gillespie Field in El Cajon. Extensive improvements to hangars, taxiways and other infrastructure are in the works at both facilities, and government and economic development leaders are counting on an improving economy on both sides of the U.S.Mexico border to stimulate ancillary demand for new airport-adjacent commercial development geared toward increasing use of small aircraft in the region. Air Cargo to Appetizers The goals include spurring aviation-related businesses to locate on and near the airports, as well as other types of companies that make heavy use of corporate aircraft, along with hotels, restaurants and other businesses serving those corporate customers and regional tourists. Communities in both regions are looking to create local jobs and cut down on commuting by residents to work at places in San Diego and other cities to the north. “It’s a quality of life issue, so people aren’t stuck in traffic wasting energy and wasting time,” said Jo Marie Diamond, president and CEO of the East County economic development agency. “Now it’s time to work on some specifics.” Leaders of both economic development groups said they have recently fielded informal inquiries from industrialrelated — but unnamed — companies interested in locating near air facilities, including energy, aviation, aerospace, drone-technology and other advanced-manufacturing firms. Cindy Gompper-Graves, CEO of the South County economic development agency, said companies she’s heard from in recent months include one involved in space tourism. A more likely scenario is getting industrial-type facilities to locate near the airports, such as manufacturing, warehouse and research-and-development buildings. Once those industrial facilities are established, there are more opportunities in the long run to add hotels, restaurants, stores and related businesses to serve new workers and residents. Links with Mexico Initial opportunities for the South County, she said, include capitalizing on recent burgeoning growth of aviationand aerospace-related manufacturing in Northern Baja cities such as Mexicali. Companies now operating on the Mexico side of the border may decide to establish a dual presence on the San Diego side, aided by access to the small airports. “The idea is to look at the airport though a different lens,” said Gompper-Graves. “These places are not just transportation hubs; they can be turned into wider economic generators.” The recently released feasibility report said Gillespie Field contributes more than $403 million and 3,164 job jobs to the local economy. Brown Field is currently under-used, but plans for phased construction of new aviation support facilities is projected to create 4,000 permanent jobs and contribute more than $500 million annually to the local economy. “An aerotropolis can extend this impact outside each airport’s fenceline,” the report concluded. The Concept Takes Off The aerotropolis concept has been extensively researched and popularized since 2000 by John Kasarda, a business professor at the University of North Carolina who in 2011 co-authored the widely read and cited book, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.” Kasarda has identified 25 global cities that can be described as an “operating” aerotropolis, where a well-used airport is already creating demand for adjacent new hotels, offices, retail and other amenities geared to business travelers who don’t like wasting time stuck in traffic between the airport and the city center. In the U.S., those include Washington, D.C., Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. An additional 21 cities — including Denver, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Milwaukee — are categorized as “developing” into a future aerotropolis, but San Diego was not on either list as of 2013. Kasarda told the San Diego Business Journal in 2011 that San Diego’s proximity to Mexico makes it an “excellent candidate” for an aerotropolis based on trade and global supply chain factors explored in his book. The problem, he noted, is that the single-runway San Diego International Airport is landlocked by its downtown location, limiting its ability to increase air connectivity and alleviate cargo traffic on local roads. Local economic development experts contend that the region’s smaller airports — including Brown Field and the county-owned McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad — have significantly relieved traffic concerns at San Diego International by focusing on corporate and other small-aircraft services as the economy has improved. Infrastructure in Place In addition, officials said the local region since 2011 has seen several upgrades to local infrastructure that will allow small airports to play a larger role. Those include the linking of state Routes 52 and 67 in East County, extensive improvements to Routes 95 and 125 in South County, federal improvements to the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa vehicle crossings and the government’s approval of a second future vehicle crossing at Otay Mesa. In December 2015, a bi-national private development group known as Otay Tijuana Venture LLC plans to open Cross Border Xpress, a pedestrian bridge and terminal allowing ticketed passengers direct access between Otay Mesa and the Tijuana airport. In the same month, another development group — Brown Field International Business Park LLC — led by longtime pilot and local developer Richard Lee Sax expects to begin grading work on the first phase of Metropolitan Airpark, which will eventually span 330 acres at Brown Field and is projected to entail more than $1 billion in development at full build-out over the next 20 years.
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