Friday, August 19, 2005
Thermal airport rejuvenation would spur East Valley growth
The Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun
Redevelopment of the Thermal airport is taking off – and that’ll help the whole valley economically. But there could be some turbulence if airport heads there navigate in a certain direction. For a long time after the World War II airport was built, county officials and East Valley business leaders have talked about expanding or moving the airport. Riverside County’s Economic Development Agency is spearheading rejuvenation of the 62-year-old facility, recently renamed Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport. It now boasts 65 new hangars with another 13 under construction. Since 1999, the county and private industry have invested $20 million in various other improvement projects, such as lengthening the primary runway.
Expansion of the Thermal airport is key to growth across the entire valley and around the Salton Sea. As an economic engine, the region ultimately needs more flights – and more diversity in the kind of flights. Raising Thermal’s capability as a general aviation airport – one serving businesses and private planes but not offering commercial airline flights – serves as a business recruitment tool, creating opportunities for more flights. That in turn brings more jobs to the East Valley, and those wages flow s west through retail, restaurant and service sales. A busy general aviation airport would help diversify the valley’s economy as well. The direction of Thermal’s redesign and the county’s plan for several hundred acres around it likely can attract distributors and small companies. County Supervisor Roy Wilson notes the airport’s growth is part of the development’s natural progression eastward – and what the East Valley needs is a better airport to both spur and respond to growth there.
Two airports in the valley make sense. While Palm Springs International Airport focuses on commercial passenger travel, plans for Thermal concentrate on private jets and businesses highly dependent on air transport. Unless houses or golf courses are demolished, there’s not much space at or around Palm Springs International for more private jets or FedEx planes, especially if the facility expands passenger plane service. There is plenty of space, however, near the Thermal facility: 600 acres of county-owned ground, which is part a larger stretch of industrial land along nearby Highway 86. And both airports are within a half hour of all valley communities, meaning those on private jets can quickly travel west while tourists on commercial flights can swiftly head east.
But for the Thermal expansion to provide the most benefit, the two airports must be complementary. Unfortunately, some civic leaders touting the Thermal facility say it might become a hub for commercial flights, too. There’s not a large enough population in the valley – even if we reach 1 million in five decades – to support two commercial passenger airports, however. Consider that the Los Angeles metro area, with a population of 17.5 million, has just five commercial airports. Given this, two competing commercial airports in the valley hardly sounds viable, at least in the foreseeable future.
In short order, expanding and improving the Thermal airport means good things for the valley. So also will keeping it on course.