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Cleared for Takeoff: How Small Town Airports Elevate Communities

An Airport Attracts Prosperity to Rural Towns

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Above image credit: Wallace White learned to fly as a teenager at the Clinton airport where he now works. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

CLINTON, Missouri – Wallace White, the operations manager at Clinton Regional Airport, sat at a conference table in the small receiving building at the airport to talk about his favorite things: airports and planes.

Later that day he’d be flying his 1959 Cessna 175 from Clinton to Joplin to pick up his girlfriend’s grandson for the weekend.

Short day trips and hobbyist aviation account for only a small portion of the airport’s traffic, which regularly fuels military planes, facilitates medical transfers and receives private jets carting business executives.

The Missouri Department of Transportation estimates the economic impact of the airport is close to $2 million dollars annually for Clinton. Similar rural airports across the state have comparable economic impacts.

Now Departing For…

Dave Schubert, president of Missouri Airport Managers Association (MAMA), said general aviation airports, while they might differ in size across the state, fill roughly the same niche in each community. These airports handle any air traffic other than military or commercial flights.

“They absolutely are an asset to the community,” he said.

Equipping a community with the ability to accept private jets can drastically affect the growth and development of a local economy.

Even in a city with a large commercial airport like St. Louis, where Schubert runs Spirit of St. Louis, the general aviation airport is still vital.

“The business jet is just as much a tool as the computer is,” Schubert explained. “What used to take a week can get done in a day.”

It’s also another way of bringing people to a community. It might just be a couple of people a month at a small airport like Clinton’s, but that’s still more people going into town, stopping for a bite to eat, renting a hotel room or shopping at the boutique. It all goes back into the local economy.

Arial photo shows two long runways amid green fields.
Clinton Regional sports two runways, the original one at 4,001 feet and the 5,000-foot runway built in 2012, which facilitates private jets. (Screenshot | Federal Aviation Administration)

Some airports, like those at nearby Lake of the Ozarks, are principally concerned with getting people into town and fueling the tourism industry. White said, like anything, an airport’s role depends on its context.

But ultimately, the airport is what a road is to most: a necessary way into town.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Clinton has just over 9,000 people. It’s a small manufacturing hub, however, responsible for producing brake fluid for Tesla cars, wholesale cheese, Tracker fishing boats, voting ballots and high-end cabinetry, to name a few.

All of those industries are growing, and Mark Dawson, Clinton’s economic development director, hinted that more are coming.

“We will probably have added over 500 manufacturing jobs in the last three years,” Dawson said.

Many of these manufacturing facilities are owned by companies outside of the Clinton area. Dawson knows for a fact many of the executives fly into Clinton Regional Airport to check in on their business.

“The airport isn’t the first deciding factor (in bringing business in). But if they can fly in, it saves them an hour-and-a-half drive either way,” Dawson said. “It’s no different than what you see at (Kansas City International Airport). It’s just on a smaller scale.”

White knows these people are flying into his airport too. But part of his job is to remain discrete.

“It is zero business of mine what they’re doing here, and it’s especially not my business to run to town and tell people what they’re doing here,” White said.

“But if an airplane like that shows up at 10 o’clock in the morning,” he said, gesturing to a photo on the table of a jet on the runway, “and five guys with suits get off of it, and they get in the car and go to town, and they come back at two o’clock in the afternoon and leave, they didn’t go to Dairy Queen, to get a dip cone.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Clinton Regional sees about 10,000 flights annually.

Man looks into the cockpit of a small two seater airplane.
White says this 1946 Aeronca Champ has become his new obsession. Airplanes, are just another toy like a motorcycle or a boat, he says. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

Clinton Regional doesn’t charge for landing, and all of the profits from fueling go right back into the airport, not to the city. So it’s hard to point to a cut-and-dry profit from the airport.

“A lot of times, there’s infrastructure that may or may not absolutely pay out, like you would think about a business paying out a profit,” White said.

What the airport does ensure is that businesses aren’t skipping over Clinton as a place to do business, simply because it can’t support the private jets its executives travel by.

“You won’t even know what company skipped your town because you didn’t have the right facilities,” White said. “Just because you build a good airport doesn’t mean you’re going to have industry dropped in your lap.”

The airport also facilitates medical transportation for patients traveling further than the helicopter at Golden Valley Memorial Hospital in town can travel.

It’s only about three or four flights a year, which isn’t a lot. But for those few patients, those flights really matter.

Christy Maggi, the city administrator of Clinton, said the radars at Clinton Regional also give reliable weather information that the hospital can use when flying its helicopter.

Lastly, the airport is a perfect middle-of-the-map fueling station for military planes who don’t want to deal with the procedure of landing on base, private jets flying cross country and small hobby planes.

White sees some regulars who always choose to fill up at the small and friendly airport in Clinton.

Footing the Bill

Airports are far from cheap. Part of White’s 35-year-plan includes constructing a $1 million airport terminal, which at face value is a heck of a gamble for a city of just 9,000 people.

But what many don’t know is that these airports are funded 90% by the federal government. The city (or county) only has to put up 10% of the funds for their airport.

The terminal project is actually part of a terminal-specific grant program which would make the split 95%-5%. It’s part of a $5 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law program aimed at developing airport terminals across the country.

Maggi said this split is one of the coolest parts of the general aviation airports.

“It would be kind of ridiculous to let those opportunities slip through your fingers,” Maggi said.

What’s more, the airport is entirely kept up by White and volunteers from the Clinton Airport Association, the local nonprofit that started and manages the airport.

The goal of a rural airport, Schubert explained, is always to be as self-sufficient as possible. That’s why you’ll usually see airport managers, such as White, out mowing the grass or showing up at odd hours to fuel the planes that pass through.

Man in yellow shirt points to a rock monument dedicated to the founders of the airport.
Before his position as operations manager, Wallace White was a volunteer of the Clinton Airport Association, which manages the airport still. (Cami Koons | Flatland)

It’s also the manager’s job to apply for government grants and plan for the future well in advance. White’s current plan for the airport stretches all the way to 2044.

When construction first began on the airport in 1965, projects included seeding the grass runway and installing cattle guards to the access roads.

Today, White’s airport improvement plans include improving the apron, building a terminal, building a parallel taxi strip and redoing the pavement on the original, 4,001-foot runway.

Past projects for improvement have included building a hangar and constructing the 5,000-foot secondary runway. This length is the magic number for business jets to land.

In other words, the airport has been well supported by the city, even if everyone in town doesn’t get it.

There will always be those who oppose any sort of tax increase or allocation of money to something they don’t understand.

“You just have to have faith that it’s going to work,” White said. “You don’t want to be living in a rural community and living like it was 1965.”

He understands the nostalgia, however, and remembers what Clinton was like in the 1960s. He grew up in the town during that time, and in the 1970s, he rode his very first airplane. It took off from Clinton Regional Airport as part of a Boy Scouts Explorer program.

From there, he was hooked on flying, and would later teach his son to fly from the same airport.

White sees most of his surrounding general aviation airports in a similar perspective. They’re doing alright, but sometimes have to fight local folks who don’t want the town to change, or to grow too big.

It’s a plight facing rural towns in many ways, not just in the aviation sector.

“I don’t want to have to deal with all those people, but you’ve got to have a balance between (staying small) and growing the community so your kids don’t have to move away to find work,” White said.

From his role as president of MAMA, Schubert hears a growing number of airport managers in the state reporting the same thing – that their communities are becoming less supportive. But he can only remember one airport, in St. Clair, Missouri, closing in the past two decades. So it’s not too bad.

“It’s by far and away one of the best assets a community can have in their arsenal,” Schubert said. “As a whole, they’re something in a community you want to support.”

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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