When the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport board launched a national search for a new executive director, it learned the same lesson Dorothy, and perhaps many of the residents who have departed from the airport’s gates, have been preaching: “There’s no place like home.”
The board voted unanimously March 18 to promote Special Projects Director Jane Morris to the airport’s top spot, following the retirement of former Director Lynn Kusy. Kusy had held the position since the airport’s beginning in 1993.
“(It was) her unique combination of relevant experience, vision and qualifications that made her the choice to take Gateway into its next chapter,” said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, also chairman of the airport’s five-member board.
Smith said the board was not looking for someone to fill Kusy’s shoes and maintain his achievements, but to build on them for the future.
“Gateway is poised to get to the next level but that involves the question of how Gateway will truly interact and be part of growth, both inside the fence and outside the fence — the greater community,” Smith said. “That’s where we think Jane had a vision for how she could make the airport not only a great airport but also a centerpiece and driver of economic development, even beyond the fences.”
Morris rose to the position amongst two other finalists to lead the center Smith referred to as “nothing less than a keystone to the future of not just East Mesa, but the south East Valley.”
Morris retired in June after 28 years with City of Phoenix, including stints as Sky Harbor assistant director of aviation and deputy director of planning and environmental services.
Her employment with Phoenix ended with the deputy city manager position.
But after a few months off she was at it again by fall, this time as the special projects director at Gateway.
“Having worked at (three) airports,” Morris said, referring to Sky Harbor, Goodyear and Deer Valley, all part of the City of Phoenix’s jurisdiction, “I’ve learned a lot about airports, how they operate and all the pieces and parts of an airport, which is a pretty fascinating place.”
Morris said there are two factors that will drive the development of the Gateway airport and expansion of its services — as well as its relevance to the economy: State Route 24, which will greatly ease traffic conditions and increase access to the area, and the 700 acres of land on the airport’s east side that will become more accessible with the highway’s construction.
The Tribune reported Sunday that the first leg of the route, which will eventually extend into Pinal County, will be completed years ahead of schedule this fall.
“It brings a new front door to the area,” she said.
But strong development takes time and money, Morris said.
“Challenges are how to fund the infrastructure,” she said of the airport’s available land.
A step in the right direction: Airport officials are predicting next year that the center will generate enough revenue to cover its full operating expenses.
In addition to Smith, the rest of the airport’s board includes Lt. Governor Stephen Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, Queen Creek Mayor Gail Barney, Phoenix Councilwoman Thelda Williams and Gilbert Mayor John Lewis.
Traditionally, their agencies combined provide about $4 million per year for operating expenses; now, the funds can be applied toward capital upgrades, Morris said.
She said revenues are still tight, though, and it will take a “lot of careful planning” to get new infrastructure and development built and on time.
Planning has been touted as one of Morris’ strengths, detailed by several improvements she oversaw during her times at various Phoenix airports, including Sky Harbor’s new PHX Sky Train, which opens in April and was finalized under Morris’ leadership.
She said another challenge is to attract new carriers and related industries when the airport’s future is still just a concept.
“How do you do that when the region has not yet grown with the rooftops and the jobs?” she said, adding that timing again becomes a crucial factor.
There is a saving factor that creates a door Gateway’s potential, Morris said: the development and positive signs of the economy reemerging around airport, including the nearby Eastmark community development and planned retail in the area.
“We have to position the airport to take advantage of that and be ready for that,” she said.
She said Gateway’s designation as a relief airport to Sky Harbor has it poised to become an international airport and hub if her vision is pursued correctly.
Smith said the board saw her as the person who could bring such expansion.
“Everyone we spoke with who worked with her in Phoenix, sang her praises for her ability to bring people together,” Smith said.
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