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Bloomington-Normal industrial park moves forward near Central Illinois Regional Airport

The Central Illinois Regional Airport.
WGLT file
The Central Illinois Regional Airport.

There will be major progress this year toward the creation of an industrial park on the southeast side of Bloomington.

The airport authority overseeing Central Illinois Regional Airport has secured a grant for $1.25 million from the state of Illinois through its Megasites program. The purpose of the program is to take large parcels of property at least 200 acres in size and make them shovel ready.

“The state of Illinois determined they were losing new economic investment because some states had facilities that were a little more prepared for development. We competed for and received this grant,” said Central Illinois Regional Airport Director Carl Olson.

The airport will invest $1.75 million to install new water and sewer lines on 250 acres south of the airport to create the new multimodal business park. The site is currently farm ground, and Olson said the airport cannot use it for aviation purposes.

The airport hopes to capitalize on the location of the site near interstates, the Norfolk Southern Railway, and the airport itself. It is nine miles from the Rivian electric vehicle plant. Olson said the airport already has had conversations with prospective developers and tenant businesses.

“Theoretically, you could have a company locate there and invest their funds to build a facility and create new jobs that might take in components that you might use in automobile manufacturing, or food manufacturing," Olson said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

"And you can have raw materials arrive by a rail car where they could be assembled or constructed into the finished product, which could then be put back on a rail car and sent to a local automobile plant, or could be put on a tractor trailer and sent to any one of the manufacturers in central Illinois.”

The airport approved a contract for design work in November and will bid the water and sewer construction in the spring. Olson hoped construction can begin in the summer and utility extension finished by the end of 2024.

“We can do things concurrently. We can do the water and sewer design and installation over here, while simultaneously maybe putting on a solicitation for a master developer or responding to an RFP for somebody that wants 100 acres with rail access. We can do them both at once,” said Olson.

New taxing body

The legislature last year approved creation of the Central Illinois Regional Airport Authority. The existing Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority will be dissolved. The new entity will encompass all of McLean County and collect property taxes from that entire territory — not just Bloomington-Normal proper, as the existing authority does.

“We are essentially creating a new municipal entity out of whole cloth, which isn't something you do very often,” said Olson.

Olson said a broad range of items must be done at the local, state and federal levels by the proposed cutover date at the end of the airport’s fiscal year. The new budget period begins May 1.

“Because the Central Illinois Regional Airport is operated as a certificated airport by the FAA, we actually have to apply for and receive their approval to do this transition and to actually secure a brand new operating certificate, which is a whole process in and of itself. Similarly, the Illinois division of aeronautics has to approve this. The Transportation Security Administration has to approve this,” said Olson.

Banking, insurance, benefits, retirement, and billing information must transition. All existing contracts, leases, and concession agreements will need new papering.

The new entity will still have seven board members. Two will be appointed by the City of Bloomington and two by the Town of Normal as before. The other three will now be appointed by McLean County and must live outside the metro area to represent rural parts of the authority.

Property tax rates for Bloomington-Normal residents will fall as part of the change. Rural residents will be taxed for the first time.

Capital spending program

The new year also brings new capital projects to CIRA. Olson said the airport program totals about $25 million on a range of projects.

“From finishing the construction phase two of our new general aviation facility for private aircraft, small aircraft, and aircraft owners, to looking to purchase new rolling stock, such as fire response vehicles, and rehabbing the entire terminal roadway system on the public side of the terminal,” said Olson.

The roadways project will cost up to $4.5 million, he said, and will largely be funded with a state Rebuild Illinois grant and Airport Authority capital funds.

“Our goal is to get that construction started early summer and to complete it this calendar year. The project will have four phases. The road will be open and safe the entire time,” said Olson.

CIRA traffic

Passenger counts fell by 6% in 2023. Olson said that is less than the drop in the number of seats airlines made available in and out of CIRA. Airline capacity was cut by 7.3%. He said this was a nationwide pattern that hit regional and small airports more than large markets.

“It is still driven largely by a shortage of flight crews. It's also driven by a shortage of aircraft. And it's also the fact that the airlines have found by providing fewer seats, it helps them to keep pricing control,” said Olson. “They're doing it for a host of reasons. But they're also doing it because it helps them support their price structure.”

Legislative landscape

The inability of Congress to pass a budget and the consequent series of continuing resolutions punctuated by shutdown threats have affected a host of regulatory and program areas, including the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization was supposed to happen last year, but has stalled — much as it has delayed the Farm Bill.

Olson said that has delayed some policy changes on environmental clearances and ways to expedite capital projects.

“I think you're going to see some changes possibly in air traffic control. We've been lobbying Congress to increase funding for air traffic controllers because there's a terrible shortage of controllers right now, which is impacting air service and communities even like Bloomington-Normal and McLean County,” said Olson.

If Congress does not act on FAA reauthorization by the spring, Olson said it will likely not happen at all in 2024 because the political season will curb congressional appetite for difficult choices and sustained policy work outside of campaign priorities.

“The folks who are needed to vote to in committee and on the floor to pass FAA reauthorization, or to craft or amend the legislation, are going to be distracted come Memorial Day, and pretty much after Memorial Day. The continuing resolution, I believe, is through about the first week of March. So we'll have to see what happens,” said Olson.

The reauthorization sets the level of grants Congress authorizes the FAA to provide airports for construction projects that are often multi year.

“It does kind of put a pinch on our long-term planning. It forces us to be creative and flexible so we can pivot one way or the other,” said Olson.

Airport's impact

The airport partnered with the Illinois aeronautics division on a statewide and community-wide economic analysis of its impact on communities. For calendar year 2022, CIRA directly and indirectly supported more than 1,400 jobs in Bloomington-Normal. Airport payroll topped $69 million.

“The direct and indirect economic positive output, whether it be from visitors staying at hotels, eating in restaurants, or just the impact of the community of the airport on the community, exceeded $217 million a year,” said Olson, adding it’s important to note the airport is more than a commercial air service and the jobs at the airport proper.

“We're talking about air cargo jobs. We’re talking about air ambulance jobs, mechanics jobs, restaurant jobs, farming jobs; the airport farms 700 acres. It is a very entrepreneurial facility,” said Olson.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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