Many areas on the outer fringes of the Washington region are building airports or remodeling old ones in an effort to end their economic isolation and gain some of the transportation advantages enjoyed by the inner suburbs.
Stafford County has embarked on the area's most ambitious effort: a new $36 million facility designed to accommodate corporate traffic and spur regional growth. At the same time, major airport make-overs are underway in Loudoun, Fauquier and St. Mary's counties and the cities of Manassas and Frederick, Md.
Airport construction is taking off because the facilities are necessary to support the burgeoning commercial bases of these outlying areas, local economic development officials say. Corporations are loath to set up shop in places they can't quickly zip in and out of, while meager air access increases the perception of outer counties as rural wastelands.
That lesson was hammered home to Gene Bailey, economic development director for Stafford, when he tried to persuade the chief executive of a midwestern firm to build an office in the Virginia county last year.
After months of tedious talks, Bailey finally swayed the executive to visit Stafford. Full of hope and eager to impress, Bailey met the executive at the Manassas Regional Airport, where he had flown in on his corporate jet.
The trip to a prospective office site went sour at the outset. "It took probably over an hour each way," Bailey recalled. "The more the clock ran, the less happy he became. It was not a good situation, because it got pretty foul."
Not surprisingly, the company rejected Stafford.
"This has happened more than once," Bailey lamented. "Some never come. This one at least took the time to come."
Economic development and aviation officials say airports spur economic growth in two primary ways: by attracting companies drawn to the convenient access and by generating their own commerce through aviation firms and other small businesses.
The Manassas airport, for example, pumps about $42 million annually into the area's economy, a Virginia state study reported. The study determined that $36 million of the economic activity was generated by aviation businesses, charter outfits and other small companies at or near the airport, with the rest coming from corporate executives flying in and out.
Outer suburbs are "finding that runways are a very definite asset to their ability to attract business," said Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, a nonprofit group of business and government leaders that helps integrate aviation into the economy. "Good general aviation is critical if you want to attract and retain quality jobs today."
Business executives in the outer counties, who travel constantly and complain the most about poor air facilities, are increasingly putting pressure on localities to improve their airports or airport access.
"Right now [St. Mary's] is a you-can't-get-there-from-here kind of place," said Wayne Wilson, field marketing manager for Northrop Grumman in Lexington Park, who travels to corporate offices elsewhere in the country at least once a month.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport is 1 1/2 hours away from Wilson's home base, and Dulles is even farther; Reagan Washington National Airport is closest, but fighting the traffic to get there makes it the least attractive, he said.
"Everybody here thinks it's about time we come into the 20th century," Wilson said.
Airports tend to be good investments for localities because they are funded primarily by the federal and state governments, while the economic return resonates locally.
Stafford, for example, is responsible for less than $500,000 of the $36 million price tag for its airport, Bailey said. Fredericksburg and Prince William County also are chipping in a small portion for the regional airport.
In the Virginia outer suburbs, projects include the $1.3 million construction of a corporate jet hangar and runway extension at the Leesburg Municipal Airport, a $3.5 million investment in additional land and improved runways at the Manassas Regional Airport and nearly $1 million for similar undertakings at the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport.
In Maryland, state legislators, aviation officials and county leaders are hoping to bolster airport facilities in once-rural areas with a string of tax-subsidized improvements.
In Frederick, a $1 million taxiway extension was recently completed, while $30 million is slated over the next five years to expand the airport.
The Walter Francis Duke Regional Airport in St. Mary's got a longer runway last year; next spring, a $3.9 million terminal will open. Plans are underway for an additional runway extension to better meet the needs of business executives, and landing instruments and weather observation systems will be in place next year.
Airports in Ocean City, Cambridge, Salisbury, Hagerstown and Cumberland have undergone similar transformations in recent years, with the goal of either attracting businesses or simply catching up with the area's growth.
"I just think the time has come for us to recognize satellite commuter air service for what it is: a form of mass transit," said Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany). "The object is to deliver passengers rapidly, thereby creating economic growth, new jobs and an enlarged tax base."
Leaders in Maryland also are trying to bring the outer counties closer by persuading a commercial carrier to service several sites. Taylor is proposing to provide $2 million in state subsidies to an independent airline that would provide service out of BWI to St. Mary's, Cumberland and Hagerstown.
In the short term, though, local leaders will be happy merely to avoid another embarrassing incident like what happened last month when Robert Basham, a founder of the Outback Steakhouse chain, flew to Southern Maryland for a restaurant opening.
For a few minutes, it looked as if Basham might have to miss the big event: The runway at the St. Mary's airport was 500 feet too short for Basham's corporate jet to land.
The problem was resolved when the jet's pilot received permission from the Navy to land at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, but the incident served as another reminder of what the area must do to survive in today's marketplace.
"If you can't even accommodate a small-engine plane for a steakhouse that is trying to move into your region," reflected County Commission President Julie B. Randall, "then where are you?"
CAPTION: (This graphic was not available) Regional Airports Expand