After Chandler determined that its airport and the surrounding area could be an economic-development engine for the city, Chris Mackay was charged with helping attract business.
Those first recruiting sessions in the late 1990s — with an airport surrounded by corn fields and no houses, and the San Tan Freeway only in the conceptual stages — were not particularly successful.
“I would take people out into the airpark area, looking for land sites,” said Mackay, Chandler’s economic development director. “You could almost hear them start to play the ‘Deliverance’ song in their head. They were not impressed and not pleased.”
Today, city officials believe that Chandler Municipal Airport, after being affected by the economic downturn that hit the aviation industry especially hard, is poised to — pun intended — take off as a business area. More than 25,000 manufacturing and industrial jobs are projected to be home to the airpark, a 9-square-mile area around the airport, by 2030.
And that is pretty heady stuff for a facility that had humble beginnings in 1948 and as recently as the 1980s had no hangars, no control tower, one short runway and a makeshift terminal that once housed a gun club.
“For a town like Chandler, having an airport is paramount if you want to bring in industry,” said Bill Menard, the airport’s director from 1982-91. “A lot of firms want the ability to get their executives in and out. And it signals that it’s a growing community. …
“It’s a valuable thing a lot of other places do not have. You never know who is going to pop in with a jet one day and say this is where I’d like to have my business.”
While the Scottsdale Airport specializes in higher-end private flights and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa is building with commercial and corporate aircraft, Chandler Municipal Airport’s identity is in general aviation, and it is one of the busiest such facilities in the nation. It handles more than 200,000 flights a year and contributes more than $53 million to Arizona’s economy.
However, the airport has retained much of the casual atmosphere of its early days, as tenants and commuters mingle in hangars or gather at the Hangar Cafe, a diner on the airport grounds.
“It is a tight-knit community,” said Frank Setzler, owner of Chandler Aviation, which has been located at the airport since 1986, “but not so much that people are not receptive to bringing in others. It’s not cliquish.”
In its early years, the airport personified Chandler’s image as a small farm town. It was the center of crop-dusting operations and became a place for the community to gather for events.
“There were community barbecues out there, a shooting range that was shared with the police department,” said Jean Reynolds, Chandler’s public history coordinator. “There was also a horse-racing track and rodeo grounds in the area. You would see crop dusting going on at one end of the airport property and the other activities happening at the other end.”
When Menard took over as director, the airport housed about 40 non-crop dusting aircraft.
The city commissioned him to expand its service capabilities.
Hangars and a parking lot were constructed.
A 5,500-square-foot terminal building opened in 1996. The control tower was added in ’98.
“(Those projects) were really a kick in the butt in terms of getting the airport moving forward,” said Menard, who has since been director of airports in Flagstaff and Gila Bend.
The airport currently has 450 aircraft based there, with two runways and 235 hangars. A new entrance off Cooper Road, enabling easier access from the San Tan Freeway, should be completed by the end of the year.
“The airpark area is kind of the city’s last frontier,” Mackay said. “North and West Chandler are pretty well built out. The Price Corridor still has some development space, but it’s a more mature area.”
The Rockefeller Crossroads — a 77-acre, 19-building office and industrial park on the northwest corner of Gilbert and Queen Creek roads — is slated to start going up in 2011 or ’12, and Mackay hopes that project ushers the anticipated development surge.
While there are grand designs for the surrounding area, the airport is expected to retain the modest functionality that Setzler believes is an asset.
“I’ve always considered this airport a diamond in the rough,” Setzler said. “But I’m not looking at what others might consider a success — a big terminal or whatever.
“How many people are using the airport for commerce and flying in to see family? To me, that will always be the most important thing an airport does.”
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