Acreage around Port Columbus ready for development

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Port Columbus International Airport boasts 1,200 businesses nearby with more than 19,000 employees-8,000 at the Defense Supply Center Columbus and 1,300 at NetJets. It's a boon for Columbus, Gahanna and Whitehall with a billion-dollar payroll.

The three cities-with the support of Franklin County and input from airport corridor employers-joined together in the Jobs Expansion and Transportation Task Force and released an agenda in February for strategic improvements in air service, surface transportation and economic development.

The JET study area, which encompasses the airport and surrounding parts of Columbus, Gahanna, Whitehall and Mifflin Township, has the potential for 675 acres of new development, 5.9 million square feet of new commercial/industrial space and nearly 24,000 additional jobs, the study concludes.

Right up front, task force participants say they know the difference between studies in binders and successful implementation. Officials from the three cities and other close observers acknowledge that the JET report's recommendations closely track a study completed in 2008. Few of those plans got off the ground during the near-collapse of the national economy in 2007-2008.

"In the coming weeks, while we have a sense of urgency and the attention of all the stakeholders, we are addressing how we are going to take the recommendations of the Task Force and make them policy, and figure out the best way to put this together," says Steve Campbell, director of regional growth initiatives for the City of Columbus.

For commercial developers, the JET report holds new hope for redeveloping surrounding property.

"We have a number of different jurisdictions with a common goal, so they can all benefit from a betterbranded and facilitated total improvement area instead of just each taking on its specific area," says Robert White Jr. of Daimler, developer of the NetJets headquarters adjoining the airfield. "If job opportunities emerge, they'll each want income tax from those, but they've got a broader approach to their pitch and a stronger brand."

The report stresses both strategic assets and liabilities. For example, the airport's proximity to Downtown, less than 15 minutes away by taxi or car, is a plus, but it also means fewer large parcels of land are available for development in the dense airport-to-downtown corridor.

Airport properties have benefited from the attractive roadways of I-670 and more recent improvements to Tech Center Drive from Gahanna. But approaches to the airport via Fifth Avenue and other surface roads to the south and east have properties with a "general appearance and condition [that] detract from the development potential of the area," the report concludes.

• Compete for new daily direct flights to the West Coast and Europe. Behind the scenes, members of the JET air service working group have already facilitated a public-private effort that provided Southwest Airlines with the financial guarantees it needed to offer daily service to Oakland, Calif. Now the JET team hopes to continue working with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority on spurring service to London and other European stops.

• Develop new options for surface transportation. Today, passengers can take a rental car or taxi Downtown, but there are no shuttles, rapid transit systems or even buses to Downtown without a transfer. COTA now plans a direct Downtown-to-airport bus line for next year. But the JET report also calls for integrating the airport into any new light rail or commuter rail system, even perhaps high-efficiency passenger service to Chicago.

• Expand public-private partnerships to spur economic development. If partnering helps expand air service, it should work for airport efforts in marketing, transportation and development, too.

• Improve development standards, amenities and infrastructure to help attract more employers. Columbus is moving forward with a new building code enforcement effort, and Whitehall and Gahanna have led the way with major road projects, like the Tech Center Drive bridge over I-270.

Mayor Michael Coleman named Daniel Rosenthal, president of Milestone Aviation to chair the JET Task Force in his 2014 State of the City message. The mayor welcomed its recommendations and asked William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, and Jean Carter Ryan, president of the Columbus-Franklin County Finance Authority, to propose next steps.

"We'd like to create some kind of development district, like the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, whose work has been so inspiring," Ryan says. That could be an association or a special improvement district, or even a new role for an existing partnership. But marketing and managing airport development requires better funding and overall leadership, task force members agree.

It's not completely clear what type of building programs will emerge. Air service-related businesses make obvious sense near the airfield, so businesses like NetJets, Flight Safety and the Republic Airways maintenance hangar all fit into the areas inside the airport fence line or at the borders of the airfield, Campbell says.

NetJets has operated out of Port Columbus since the 1960s. It moved into its current operations center in 2000 and moved its corporate headquarters there from Easton in 2012, an important job retention move for a company that flirted with Charlotte, N.C. "We plan to stay where we are and continue to grow our business here in Columbus, adding on to our already long and rich history," says Tom Hoyt, NetJets senior vice president for communications.

But further away from the airfield, development targets need more study and support. "Our top recommendation was to develop a marketing plan," Ryan says, noting that requires more funding than individual cities like Whitehall, Gahanna and Columbus now have in their marketing budgets.

As one step forward, JET Task Force communities have assembled a comprehensive list of 13 ready-for-development properties in the study area. Projects are already under way in several of the areas, including:

Daimler's Airside Business Park, a $22 million space near the $113 million Flight Safety headquarters and NetJet's operation and headquarters center. Daimler's White says more small-scale projects like the new Homage headquarters near NetJets should compete well for tenants. The T-shirt company has already relocated nearby.

Rite Rug is relocating its new showroom and warehouse to the Airport South Commerce and Tech Park in Whitehall, a redevelopment of the former Kroger warehouse.

Perhaps the most potential in the study area is in Gahanna, which has more than 300 acres straddling the east and west sides of I-270 at Tech Center Drive on the airport's northeast side. Value Recovery Inc. manages and markets the property, and other owners have 39 more acres of partially developed land just southeast of Value Recovery's Central Park recreation and commercial land.

Value Recovery Chairman and CEO Barry Fromm expresses pride in the successful turnaround of the properties there from a brownfield construction waste landfill into Gahanna's Central Park, a mixed-use development area with trees, workplaces, dining, golfing and connections to the city's most successful corporate settings.

Fromm wants to add more recreation facilities to this "Go-Do" entertainment district, still allowing for commercial/industrial business, too. "We'd like to do something about some completely unfulfilled sports needs for central Ohio," Fromm says, and a combined craft brewery and beer garden could fit in nicely. "We're five minutes from the airport, and our golf center and restaurant have a terrific view of Downtown from the highest elevation in the county."

The Gahanna sites are the largest parcels within the JET study area, and that land represents the vast majority of remaining commercial land eligible for development in Gahanna, says Anthony Jones, Gahanna's director of planning and development.

The opening of the Tech Center Drive bridge over I-270 led to construction of medical offices for the Central Ohio Urology Group, and it links the airport with a district that already includes headquarters for AEP Ohio, Donato's, ABB Airport Solutions, Grote Co., Jane's Dough Foods and Kahiki Foods Inc., Jones notes.

The JET Task Force report expresses support for ongoing efforts to retain and expand employment and value for the Defense Supply Center Columbus, which houses at least 20 Department of Defense agencies, as well as an Ohio National Guard unit. It is by far the study area's largest employment center and carries a special weight of both concern and opportunity.

DSCC is almost completely in Whitehall, and it is a major focus of job retention efforts for Whitehall Director of Economic and Community Development Zach Woodruff, who embraced the work of the JET task force.

Woodruff credits the proximity of the airport, the presence of DSCC and constant attention by the city of Whitehall for success in economic redevelopment: 1,000 new jobs, 100 new businesses and $35 million in new payroll since 2012.

"Meanwhile, we've rebuilt all five of our public schools, invested in fiber optics and attracted Franklin County Children's Services and Priority Design, a product design expert serving internationally known brands," Woodruff says.

DSCC provides space for about 7,500 of the 13,700 U.S. Department of Defense jobs in the Columbus area, says Steve Tugend, a partner at law firm Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter.

Tugend facilitates efforts of the Central Ohio Defense Jobs Working Group, a coalition working to retain, expand and attract public and private defense jobs here. The group meets frequently and is in constant contact with Ohio congressional leaders to gain insight on new Pentagon initiatives and how they might affect the airport corridor's largest employer.

Tugend believes DSCC has only just begun to extend the synergies of high-security access to the installation, as it did when the Ohio National Guard relocated operations there. Closely related defense and technology firms may appreciate that shared service approach, too, he says.

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.