Not grandpa's airport: It's 'Aerotropolis'
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John Kasarda doesn't see Pittsburgh International Airport as a mere transit stop. He envisions it as a potential "Aerotropolis."
An aerotropolis is not the domain of some comic book superhero, but a city built on and around an airport, creating jobs and economic development for a region as a whole.
Mr. Kasarda sees airports as hubs for aviation-linked businesses. They could be time-sensitive manufacturing and distribution facilities; hotel, entertainment, retail, convention and exhibition complexes; and office buildings that house businesses that rely heavily on air travel.
"Airports are no longer airports, simply put," he said. "They are really multimodal, multifunctional enterprises that are attracting a considerable amount of commercial development on their property and around it."
Mr. Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, plans to bring his message to Robert Morris University in Moon on Monday and Tuesday, where he and other experts will take part in a conference to help guide development around Pittsburgh International.
Joining Mr. Kasarda for the two-day session will be Mulugetta Birru, the former Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority and Allegheny County economic development director, and Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
County Executive Dan Onorato said he hoped that the conference would help to "continue the momentum" in developing the 10,000 acres of public-owned land surrounding the airport.
Since 2005, the county, the airport authority and private investors have developed more than 2,300 acres of that land totaling 13,277,000 square feet. Private investment has topped $1.2 billion, according to the county.
The county and airport authority have spent about $60 million in grants, loans, tax exemptions and tax increment financing in getting the land ready for development.
Mr. Onorato described the development -- mostly a mix of office, warehouse, light industrial and flex space -- as a "great start" but added there's a "good way to go yet."
"I'm just trying to keep the momentum going," he said.
He sees the conference as a way of doing just that. Mr. Kasarda said aerotropolises already have grown up around airports in Amsterdam, Beijing, Chicago, Dallas and other cities, and that he saw potential for one at Pittsburgh International.
The airport is in excellent condition and well run, he said. The loss of the US Airways hub, while a tremendous blow to the region, could now work to its advantage because of the capacity available for expansion, particularly as East Coast airports become more congested.
Mr. Kasarda said the county and the airport authority have a "good model" for development but that "it needs to be refined." They need to "take the work to a higher and more organized level of efficient development."
Cargo facilities must be developed that can offer faster and "more agile" performance. The airport should also try to capitalize on the region's thriving health industry.
He said pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and medical instruments all move by air. Such businesses could benefit by being located near the airport. Airport lands also are prime locations for recreational facilities and factory outlet stores.
As more businesses in need of cargo or passenger service move near Pittsburgh International, it should entice the airlines to add more flights to meet the greater demand, he said.
"Airlines are reactive, not proactive," he said. "They go where they can fill their planes."
The revenue generated by development on airport- or county-owned land can also be used to lower rates for the airlines to make Pittsburgh International more competitive. Mr. Kasarda said that at many larger airports, more than half of the revenue comes from real estate development, concessions and parking.
He also suggested that the airport authority consider underwriting or subsidizing flights from Pittsburgh International by guaranteeing certain passenger or cargo volumes, much like the state and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development offered subsidies to Delta Air Lines to start nonstop service to Paris.
However, Mr. Onorato, who leaves office at the end of the year, would have none of that.
"We are not subsidizing flights," he said.
First Published June 10, 2011 12:00 am