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An airport plan.

YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL when listening to Jimmy Moses talk about his vision for this and that.

The last time the Little Rock real estate developer stirred up talk about his vision for some kind of downtown Little Rock renaissance, he helped make it happen in a big way.

Now we've got people willing to fork over $300 a SF for upscale condominiums, and traffic is crazy on the east end of Markham Street--which wasn't safe to visit when I arrived in 1993--because there are so many people hanging out at the River Market District clubs and restaurants.

The naysayers were silenced as what is now more than $1 billion has been invested in downtown projects, with another $100 million or so in the works today.

In his spare time Moses is a member of the Little Rock Airport Commission. It's considered a plumb appointment in Little Rock, perhaps equivalent to being selected to the Arkansas Highway Commission at the state level, because the airport commissioners control a lot of money and lead a very high-profile operation. He's in good company with the likes of Bob East, Gene Fortson, Kay Kelley Arnold and Tom Schueck.

Moses recently briefed business and government leaders on plans to study the future of the airport. Specifically, he says the 33-year-old terminal needs to be replaced to serve Arkansas for the next 50 years.

That would cost at least $270 million and, from the planning phase to the opening, could take seven years to complete.

Little Rock National took a hit in flight activity just like every other airport in the world after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the fourth quarter of 2005, the airport finally renamed to pre 9/11 passenger levels, and during 2005 it served more than 2 million passengers either arriving or departing.

Projections show that air travel to and from Little Rock will continue to grow for a variety of reasons, including more baby boomer leisure travel, more business activity, and more visitors resulting from the Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International activities.

Airport spokesman Philip Launius says that at peak travel times, the current terminal is at capacity for delivering the level of services air travelers expect. About $170 million in capital improvements were made at the airport during the 1990s, and those included runway work and a parking deck. A terminal renovation project is under way to help meet short-term needs, but it's not designed to alleviate long-term issues.

When asked what would happen to the existing terminal, Moses suggested it might be demolished after the new one is built next to it. That news didn't go over particularly well in the audience, considering the renovation investments currently being made, but there may be no choice in the master development plan.

Southwest Airlines accounts for about one-third of the airport's passenger count, and it apparently remains committed to Little Rock despite federal laws being loosened regarding its flight requirements in and out of Love Field in Dallas. Other players like Frontier have turned to Little Rock for expansion.

Despite all the airline bankruptcies and related industry turbulence such as high fuel prices, air travel isn't going away. Indeed, the industry may ultimately be stronger. Little Rock National wants to be prepared to capitalize on this, and I would agree it needs to be.

The airport's current capacity to issue bonds is only $50 million, and about $30 million is currently outstanding. It would have to identify and obtain new revenue streams.

I can't imagine significant federal funding for airport expansions will be available, because security spending and the larger; crowded facilities are likely to get top priority. Even though Little Rock National serves most of the state, legislators will be hard-pressed to earmark big money to the capital city. And leaders of Pulaski County, Little Rock and North Little Rock need to raise taxes just to meet operational demands and jail needs.

Moses and the rest of the Airport Commission know they face an uphill battle but are properly articulating a vision and developing their case for the need. The competition for attention and funding will be enormous.

Overall, it's refreshing to hear big-picture brainstorming about our infrastructure and future. Only those cities that dream big ever have a chance to succeed.

Jimmy Moses has a proven track record in taking the lead with a vision. I can't wait to see the flight plan.

Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com.
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Title Annotation:Publisher's Note
Author:Hankins, Jeff
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 30, 2006
Words:750
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