DeKALB – Airport manager Tom Cleveland knows the DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport benefits the entire county, which is why he wonders if more than just the city of DeKalb should support the agency.
Some DeKalb leaders are renewing their questions about making the DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport into a regional airport authority, which would make the agency its own taxing body. City officials could have an answer by early next summer through a feasibility study.
“We're getting all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Cleveland said. “The city of DeKalb's paying for it, but the whole county's benefiting from it.”
The airport creates about $10.7 million in economic activity and 81 jobs for the local area, according to a 2012 report from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The airport's two runways host some 30,000 flights a year, Cleveland said, for corporate, cargo and recreational operations.
It's not a coincidence transportation takes the first spot on the list of benefits offered on the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation's website, said Executive Director Paul Borek. DeKalb County has a transportation trifecta – the DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport, tollway and rail lines – that appeals to businesses looking at DeKalb County.
"It's a major asset to the county and the city," Borek said. "It's instrumental when you can bring corporate officials and site selectors right to your community."
It also appeals to private pilots like Rick Boone, from Wichita Falls, Texas, who flew into DeKalb before taking a rental car to a business meeting in Chicago.
“It's got good runways, good approaches,” Boone said. “Really it's got everything you need. If I come back to Chicago, why wouldn't I land here?”
As valued as the airport is, the city struggles to make it a profitable venture.
City budgets show airport expenses have ranged from $1.3 million to a projected $3.3 million in the past four years, with revenues fluctuating between $1.4 million and $3.2 million. The fluctuation is mainly due to the amount of federal grant money the airport receives for building and major equipment projects. Those projects require the city to pay 5 percent.
The remainder of the money to support airport operations comes from the fuel sales, rental income from the airport’s 30 hangars, or transfers from the city's general fund. The latter looks problematic to city officials seeking ways to make the city more financially stable.
City officials don't want to add runways, though more hangars are plausible.
For now, Cleveland is working on getting the airport certified to take on a number of chartered flights with more than 30 passengers, which could mean more business, Public Works Director TJ Moore said. Certification would allow Northern Illinois University's football team to fly out of DeKalb instead of Chicago Rockford International Airport.
Adding more fees for airport users wouldn't solve the problem, Moore said, because it would only steer users to other airports.
“The airport brings a lot to the local economy, but it can't monetize itself,” Moore said.
Moore said the city has been exploring the idea of making the airport its own taxing entity for several years, but this year the city will commission a study to find a definitive answer about how feasible it is. City officials haven't awarded a contract for a study yet, but Moore said he expects results will be available by early next summer.
If the city decides to move forward with establishing an airport authority, it will need to garner support either from voters or Illinois lawmakers. The only way to establish an airport authority is through a referendum or action from the Illinois General Assembly.
Mayor John Rey said he thinks the changes could come within the next decade, though he knows it would take a large informational campaign, especially when property values are down and residents are feeling the tax burden from other taxing bodies.
“The timing is going to be a major factor,” Rey said.