Informational presentation about airport development

Courtney Dunbar, a site selection and economic development leader from construction engineering company

Burns & McDonnell

, presents to community leaders at the officers’ club at the Victoria Regional Airport Thursday.

The Victoria Regional Airport director told community leaders Thursday that the success of the airport requires investment from the whole community.

“We need to start thinking forward now – this is not just the county’s airport, it’s the community’s airport,” said director Lenny Llerena. “Whatever happens at the airport is going to significantly impact not just the county, but the whole community, the whole region.”

Llerena spoke to the leaders at the officers’ club at the Victoria Regional Airport who had gathered for a presentation about positioning the airport’s assets for future economic development. Attendees included Victoria’s city manager and members of the Victoria City Council; the Victoria County judge and several county commissioners; representatives from the community’s economic development corporation and the Victoria Metropolitan Planning Organization; members of the airport commission; State Rep. Geanie Morrison and others.

At first look, Victoria is an enticing area for businesses, said Courtney Dunbar, a site selection and economic development leader from construction engineering company Burns & McDonnell, who also spoke to the leaders. She said businesses recognize advantages of the area, including the city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and major metropolitan areas, its transportation modes and its position as a retail and services hub among a seven-county region. And, she said, the airport’s 9,100-foot runway is a huge pull.

But before best appealing to outside businesses, Llerena said, there are multiple steps that need to be taken.

For example, a study of the airport’s runway would help inform staff about the limitations of the airport and its runway. Llerena said he is looking into possible sources to fund the study, which could cost about $150,000.

“Even if it showed the runway needs more work, the study would help us know where we are at and what our abilities with this runway are, so we can answer to businesses that are looking to use it,” he said.

Llerena gave a scenario about a company approaching him that is considering coming to Victoria and needing the airport. The first thing the company asks, he said, is what the runway can do.

He said he would tell them the runway can handle whatever they want to bring, and he would make it happen. The conversation would continue to the company explaining the space it needs at the airport and asking what the community can do for them as well – which is why, Llerena said, the full community’s support is vital.

Additionally, Llerena said he is exploring getting a complete master plan of the airport done that would examine and showcase the airport’s layout, so he could better explain to businesses the opportunities and areas that exist.

The scenario wasn’t totally hypothetical. Though he couldn’t go into detail, Llerena said he has been communicating with a business interested in coming to Victoria thanks to its airport. But to make it happen, he said, “we need to be engaged as a community.”

“We have to be ready, because these companies will knock on our doors at some point,” he said. “And if we aren’t ready, these companies are going to go to the next airport.”

Airport Commissioner Buddy Billups commended Llerena for his efforts to gather the community together to facilitate Thursday’s conversation. Billups said the airport has gone from making substantial, annual operating losses, to bringing in a strong profit and being self-sufficient.

For years, he said, the airport was seen as a “money pit,” but the community needs to see it as a financial opportunity and continue to move it forward.

“We need to invest,” he said.

Llerena agreed, saying everybody needs to work together to see the airport grow. He said Thursday’s conversation was a positive effort toward encouraging community leaders to support the airport and help it become more successful for the community at large.

“It will take a whole community approach to make the airport great, and that’s what we are heading toward,” Llerena said after the meeting.

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter.

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