Airport debate a symptom of Dallas County’s growing pains
Dozens of “ban the airport” signs are cropping up as the nation’s 10th fastest-growing county experiences a new round of growing pains manifested in a debate over whether a general aviation airport should be built near a county-owned business park west of Waukee.
“People are fairly emotional about the situation,” said Regency Homes President Jamie Myers. Regency Homes was among 13 metro area businesses investing in a study by former state economist Harvey Siegelman and Iowa State University Professor of Economics Daniel Otto, who concluded a regional airport in Dallas County would potentially generate $48.3 billion in taxable business valuations, $1.8 billion in additional property tax receipts, $80 million in airport-related spending and $32 million in payrolls over the next 20 years.
Other investors in that study were MidAmerican Energy Co., AllState Industries Inc., American Equity Investment, Hy-Vee Inc., JSC Properties Inc., Kirke Financial Services Inc., Krause Gentle Corp., McAninch Corp. Medical Industries, Monarch Manufacturing Co., Ramsey Pontiac and Westlakes Properties.
Disheartened by the tone the debate over the proposed $25 million Metro West Regional Airport has taken, Bill Krause, president and CEO of Krause Gentle Corp., wonders aloud: “I often wonder how all of us would have reacted if the people with the oxen and covered wagons had been told they couldn’t build roads. “I am always disappointed when people who don’t really know all the facts become somewhat biased and it becomes difficult to change their minds – as my friend Bill [Reichardt] said, ‘Don’t give me the facts, because I’ve already made up my mind,’” Krause said. “We’re trying diligently to be a partner in progress.”
Some Dallas County residents wish they wouldn’t.
Opponents of the airport have made a flurry of visits to city council and Dallas County Board of Supervisors meetings, trying, Adel City Councilman Jon McAvoy observed, “to get one city at a time to get out by not considering all the facts.” The De Soto City Council agreed with the opponents, voting 4-1 in March to leave the consortium that now includes the cities of Adel, Van Meter, Waukee, Dallas Center, Urbandale, Clive and West Des Moines and Dallas County.
Retired farmer and educator Jon West of Minburn, a member of the Dallas County Farm Bureau, claims opponents to the airport have gathered more than 2,000 signatures of similarly thinking Dallas County residents, a number he believes should be sufficient to cause government officials to retract their support for the airport.
McAvoy, however, said it’s premature for his city to pull out of the consortium. The airport project is in a holding pattern of sorts as officials await word on whether it will be included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems, making it eligible for federal funding. The Dallas County Board of Supervisors has applied for a $250,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant to fund an environmental assessment of the preferred location site, an 80-acre parcel of land on the southeast corner of the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and Dallas County R16 at Ortonville.
“It’s not costing us anything to sit and wait,” McAvoy said.
He thinks opponents of the airport make up “a vocal minority.”
“There’s a faction of people who just don’t want to see change, and they are very vocal,” he said. “It is certainly their right, but certainly there are a lot of people who are fine with change. I don’t know if Dallas County is different than other counties, but there’s a strong sentiment that ‘I don’t like change.’ It just exists, but I honestly don’t think that’s the majority.”
Even a leader of one of three groups opposing the airport acknowledges their arguments are based in part on the emotions surrounding the county’s exponential growth over the past two decades. West said that among other concerns, opponents are skeptical of projected multibillion-dollar economic impact projections, think the Ankeny Regional Airport and Des Moines International Airport adequately serve general aviation needs, and believe costs to acquire 80 acres of land have been drastically underestimated.
“People do not understand why we need to build another facility and spend maybe $40 million or more – by the time you pay interest, I’d be willing to bet – and take land out of production,” West said.
But, he acknowledged, “It’s difficult not to be a little emotional when you feel like you are not being listened to, and if you are tied to the land or rural living, it’s a little emotional when you see it paved over. Once that’s done, it’s ruined and it will never be that again.”
Government leaders say they sympathize, but believe the airport offers Dallas County one of its best chances to balance aggressive housing growth with commercial and industrial developments that pay higher taxes and employ local residents. “The county needs the tax base, and will not be able to continue to provide the same level of services to residential communities without additional growth in commercial and industry,” said Kim Chapman, chairman of the board of supervisors.
He said he and other elected officials are increasingly frustrated by the downward spiral of dialogue surrounding the proposed airport. “When you can’t get people to sit down with an open mind and evaluate the facts to make a decision, it becomes difficult,” Chapman said. “We’re not trying to convince anyone it’s right, we’re just trying to keep an open mind as we evaluate the facts to make a good, sound decision – and not have my decision based on emotions.”
For example, the proposed airport increasingly has been characterized by opponents as a playground for wealthy Greater Des Moines business people. “It’s not about rich people jetting around the country for fun, it’s about leveraging management time for business,” said Dave Mulcahy, chairman of Monarch Manufacturing Co., which represents about 10 percent of the business of Monarch Holdings Inc., of which he also is chairman.
Mulcahy said access to airport facilities is crucial for companies like Monarch Holdings. He said a management group traveling to Monarch’s operations in Wisconsin, Ohio and Georgia can accomplish in three days what it would take more than a week to accomplish if travel were through a commercial airline. “The most scarce resource in our business is management time, and efficient utilization of that is critical,” he said.
Monarch Holdings, headquartered in Adel at the Ortonville Business Park the county assisted in creating, owns two corporate aircraft currently hangared at Des Moines International Airport. “Leveraging the time of management allows us to grow,” Mulcahy said. “We find it easier to do business in towns that have good general aviation facilities, and it does impact [corporations’] attitudes toward doing business in those towns. It’s a stimulus for good-quality development.”
“Businesses think of corporate aircraft as a traveling tool,” added McAvoy, whose job at Principal Financial Group Inc. requires him to travel to other locations in company-owned aircraft. “It’s not just executives wining and dining. From a cost-benefit analysis, it’s cheaper to use corporate aircraft than to fly commercial. Those people’s time is worth money. People have this Hollywood vision of corporate aircraft as a thing of the rich. It’s not true; they use them as a tool, just as they would use cars and buses.”
Business leaders backing the project are eager to dispel what they call misinformation about the proposed airport at a series of public meetings being scheduled by Fort Dodge-based McClure Engineering Co., the engineering firm hired by the county as consultants on the project.
“I assumed there would be opponents to the airport, but did not anticipate the level of emotion versus focus on facts,” Mulcahy said. “Our focus is very simple, to continue to focus on the facts.”
Myers said he’s not unaccustomed to the polarized turn the debate has taken.” We run into that on a very regular basis,” Myers said. “As developers acquire and build on land, there’s always change, and change is not always easy to accept. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for some economic development in the whole western suburbs region of Greater Des Moines.”
And therein lies part of the problem for Dallas County residents clinging to the vestiges of the area’s rural past.
“We know it’s coming this way and are not going to stop it,” West said, “but we would love to draw a line and say: ‘That’s as far as you go.’”