County balances funding, growth at airport
KIMBALL TWP. - If you blinked while driving west on Gratiot Avenue, you may have missed the small green sign indicating an airport hangar was nearby.
St. Clair County International Airport — a few hundred acres situated in southern Kimball Township — has been around since the 1940s.
Local officials talk about it the way they have the county’s Blue Water Convention Center, or using funds to keep relationships with lobbyists and consultants — like they’re all pieces on a chessboard to help attract visitors and business to the area. Those who use the airport talk of its convenience.
Last month, however, marked just four years since the county began receiving revenue from the fees and services charged to aircraft hangar there. And while more funds are still being spent than earned, it may be difficult to find anyone familiar with the airport to disagree that it’s worth the investment.
Among those is local businessman Jeff Beckett, who joked last week he was a "champion of the airport."
"The funding, I know it’s subsidized roughly 300 grand, but I think the county has (an) economic advantage with the number of people that are employed out there," he said. "It’s another asset the county has."
The county promotes data stating more than 290 corporate and freight companies fly in and out of the airport, and Airport Director Kathy Reaume said 85 percent to 90 percent of the airport’s revenue comes from corporate traffic. Its air industrial park also employs 189 people.
Beckett owns Port City Fulfillment, which he said is like a "mini-Amazon warehouse operation" shipping and receiving every day out of a building at the airport. He said that arrangement also allows his other entity, Port City Companies, to store a plane for corporate use.
"It provides us (a chance) to have our corporate on site pickups and inspections and visits to customers," Beckett said. "That's the benefit to my business and one of the reasons that I chose to establish it at the airport."
Officials largely kept mum about what companies specifically utilize the airport but not why they come and, ultimately, what that means.
“They pay a landing fee, they pay a handling fee, they purchase fuel,” Reaume said of corporate aircraft. “So the more the county grows, the more the airport grows because they’re all coming in here to do some type of business in the county.”
Outside of aircraft services, the rest of the airport’s operating income primarily comes from ground leases at the industrial park. Each year, the airport’s financial operating loss has narrowed, and the county is spending less overall to subsidize the gap.
Revenue and expenditures jumped from $572,587 and $907,680, respectively, in 2013 to $577,450 and $689,860 last year — a 66 percent decrease in the shortfall the county has to fill.
So far in 2017, that gap is already up to $112,598 — slightly more than it was in all of 2016. But Reaume said there’s likely a reason for the change, adding she thought it’d even out by year’s end.