Entrepreneurs envision bizav complex at MRB

 - March 16, 2007, 9:24 AM

A largely abandoned manufacturing facility adjacent to the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport/Shepherd Field (MRB) in Martinsburg, W.Va., could become an FBO complex aimed at business/corporate aviation if two area businessmen have their way.

According to AM Airport Development, it will offer FBO services comparable to the best facilities on the East Coast, and the facilities are being planned with long-term tenants and corporate flight departments in mind. In addition to all the services required by corporate flight operations, the project will feature tight security, competitive cost-plus contract fueling and such features as indoor parking and other amenities.

MRB is located 35 nm northwest of Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and AM Airport Development is convinced the field is ideally situated to catch overflow from IAD and other congested Washington-area airports. The primary Runway 8-26 is 7,000 feet, while the crosswind Runway 17-35 is 5,001 feet.

The airport is the home of the West Virginia Air National Guard’s C-130H air wing, and plans are afoot to lengthen the main runway to 10,000 feet to accommodate a C-5A air wing expected to relocate there in the next several years. In addition, MRB is now the home of Tiger Aircraft, which has brought the single-engine piston Tiger AG-5B (née Grumman) back into production, and it will be the site of subsystem production for the new Sino Swearingen SJ30-2 twin-turbofan business jet when it is certified by the FAA. That plant has already been built.

One full-service FBO–Aero-Smith–is now located there, and owner George Smith is one of the principals in AM Airport Development. The other principal is Hank Willard, a developer of industrial/commercial real estate who is also a pilot. He characterized the Martinsburg airport as one of the largely unrealized assets of the West Virginia panhandle area. “It is surprising how many people don’t know about it,” he said. “It’s very underexposed.”

If You Build It, Will They Come?

MRB has ILS, LOC/DME, back course, VOR, GPS and Rnav approaches, and well as a part-time control tower and ASOS. It is outside Washington Class B airspace and the Washington ADIZ, and the FAA currently designates Martinsburg Regional as a Washington reliever airport with primary airport status planned for the future.

Recent improvements include an expanded general aviation apron, and construction has begun on a new general aviation terminal. A 3.5-acre paving project is expanding the ramp area at the southeast corner of the airport directly in front of the area which AM wants to develop.

The first phase of the two-phase project will begin with the renovation of an existing 60,000-sq-ft structure that reportedly was constructed for aircraft manufacturing during the Korean War. It contains a 20,000-sq-ft hangar contiguous to 40,000 sq ft of shop and office space specifically designed to support flight operations with a full range of services and amenities. The first phase is expected to be available by the third quarter of this year. An additional 40,000 sq ft of hangar space will be built in the second phase, which will depend on user interest.

“The main motivation here is to capitalize on what we perceive to be a demand in this region for hangar space capable of serving corporate aircraft,” Willard explained, “because of the backlog of demand at Dulles.” He told AIN that Piedmont Hawthorne IAD acknowledged there is a considerable waiting list for hangar space.

At Martinsburg, he noted, the John D. Rockefeller IV Science & Technology Center comprises a 210-acre industrial and research park located within the airport authority boundary. Its namesake, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), was instrumental in attracting Sino Swearingen and Tiger Aircraft, as well as Ralph Lauren clothing, which has set up a major distribution facility in the airport’s designated foreign trade zone.

Willard said the nearly six-acre tract being developed is “quite unique” for any airport because it is privately owned and not leased from an airport authority. “Our intention is to develop it into a full-service facility that would hangar and provide FBO-type services for whomever the tenants might be,” he explained, “and have it operated as a multi-tenant facility. But that wouldn’t preclude developing it on a build-to-suit basis for someone who wanted the whole thing and wanted to own it outright, fee simple.”

Another option, he added, would be to “condominiumize” it, depending on what the market turns out to be. “We’re trying to determine what the market is,” he said. “We believe there’s a market out there, but we haven’t gotten to the point where anyone’s come forward with a lot of interest yet.”

Willard conceded that the project is “a risky venture, frankly,” although there is real sentiment on the part of the community and the airport authority in particular to have the buildings and the tract returned to aviation use. It has been used for non-aviation industrial purposes since it was built decades ago. The property is surrounded by airport authority land, and he suggested that the authority would buy it if it had the funds.

“We don’t want to throw a party and have nobody come,” Willard admitted. “There is the opportunity for outright ownership. We wouldn’t mind attracting a user with one airplane who wanted to take an equity interest in the project and essentially buy their hangar space forever as opposed to having to rent on a monthly or annual basis from an FBO.” But, he hastened to add, “that is not our thrust.”