Airport envy? Chamber tour of Greenville highlights debate at Tallahassee International Airport

From the Tallahassee Democrat

GREENVILLE — Several business leaders say they’re convinced a new approach is needed at Tallahassee International Airport after touring Greenville’s airport, which saw record numbers in passengers and cargo loads last year.

Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, despite competing against four major airports within driving distance, moved more than 118 million pounds of cargo and 2.3 million passengers.

Major companies are strategically positioned around the airport, which has several infrastructure projects underway to support its growth, including a new cargo facility. But, it wasn’t until the tour buses stopped at the South Carolina Inland Port when the flurry of selfies, tweets, videos and images were snapped and posted by Tallahassee’s most influential government and business leaders.

“We need one of these in Tallahassee,” said Sammie Dixon, president and CEO of Prime Meridian Bank, when stepping off one of two buses parked amid the forklifts beeping and carefully stacking cargo containers like Jenga blocks.

The port is relatively new. It opened in 2013 and created a 212-mile inland reach from Port of Charleston to Greer, S.C.

According to Greenville officials, the facility provides shippers with access to more than 95 million consumers within a one-day drive. Now, the Port has exceeded its five-year projections by 62 percent, which has forced the need for a 30-acre expansion that will double the inland port’s capacity in the region.

The airport stop was a part of a three-day trip organized by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, which has done similar trips to cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Boulder, Colorado.

As more details about Greenville’s airport were shared, Tallahassee officials reflected on their own airport.

Greenville’s airport is managed by a six-member independent authority managed by Dave Edwards, the authority’s president who manages roughly 200 employees. The tour stop was eye opening considering the city’s upcoming workshop to discuss the future of Tallahassee’s airport.

Mark O’Bryant, who chairs the Chamber’s Board of Directors, said touring Greenville’s airport punctuated the need for an authority governance structure. Greenville’s Airport Authority Commission is a policy board that meets six timers per year. The Airport District, governed by the Authority, receives no local tax funding and is sustained by its own revenue.

“My belief is what we have now is a structure that supports exactly what it was designed to support, a good municipal airport,” O’Bryant said. “But it’s not designed to do much more than that. If we expect it to be an economic development force, it’s not going to be.”

In 2017, the Chamber took a stance to urge city commissioners to consider an independent authority structure as opposed to the municipal-managed approach in place now. The airport’s advisory committee recently said it agreed, stating the change would allow for more flexibility in decisions needed at the airport without the bureaucratic red tape.

The Chamber and others supporters believe Tallahassee’s airport, along with its 750 acres, should be treated as an economic asset to the region and not a municipal department controlled by City Hall.

“If there was anything that came out of this morning it was absolutely that’s something that we should strongly, strongly consider,” O’Bryant said. “In looking at what they have been able to do, there’s no reason we can’t do that even moreso. It just validated to me our current design is not structured or ever going to achieve that kind of development.”

Scott Carr, vice president of commercial business and communications for GSP International Airport, who led the tour of the terminal, said business travelers make up 65 percent of flights served at Greenville’s airport.

It has six airlines, and Washington, D.C., is the top market, followed by New York. For international flights, the top markets include Mexico City, Toronto and Munich, Germany. Tallahassee’s top markets are the nation’s capital, New York and South Florida. Unlike Tallahassee International Airport, Greenville’s airport doesn’t have intrastate services from the airport but has 19 nonstop cities across the country.

The airport was recognized for its concession offerings, including The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck, national chains and local restaurants. It’s also home to the first FAA-sanctioned airside garden in the country, showcasing statues and a lush green landscape.

Tallahassee’s airport has undergone massive change in recent years, along with recognition as a top airport and top aviation director last year. It earned its international designation in 2015 and completed a massive transformation of its terminal.

“We have got the talent. We have got the assets. I’m hoping we have the political will, which I think we do, to take the next step,” Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey said.

The airport has 750 acres surrounding the airport that’s prime for development. Dailey said infrastructure, such as hangars and logistics facilities, will be attractive to specific industries.

Dailey wouldn’t say whether he’s leaning toward an authority governance structure, however, he said more effort needs to be made to make the most of the airport’s assets. Dailey said the commission will most likely decide during its workshop whether to request proposals for a feasibility study of a governance structure that fits Tallahassee’s airport.

“I am 100 percent in favor of moving forward in taking that next step,” Dailey said, regarding an RFP approach. “I think it’s the appropriate time in the growth of our community.”

While the city will have the final say on whether to change the airport’s governance, several trip attendees walked back to the bus feeling optimistic about the overall growth in their backyard.

County Commissioner Rick Minor said the trip wasn’t about what Greenville has that Tallahassee doesn’t and vice versa. It’s about, he said, looking at the hand Greenville was dealt and “how did they play that hand to win.”

“We’ve got our hand of cards, and we’ve got some really great cards,” Minor said. “But how are we going to strategically play the game so that we can win.”