Blog by Willett – Airports matter

News | 09/08/2015

AirplaneThe following was written by Brent Willett, Executive Director of the Cultivation Corridor, and featured in the Business Record’s Business Professionals’ Blogs. Read the original article at iowabiz.com.

Airports matter

Last year, I traveled to the Raleigh-Durham region on business; the place is a hotbed for biotechnology economic development and I was in town to learn about the region’s approach and to visit with a handful of companies.

At the heart of the North Carolina Research Triangle, which is perhaps the world’s most successful example of regional, cluster-based economic development, Raleigh-Durham and the surrounding area has for decades come to define success for how regional economies can leverage the public, private and academic sectors to produce globally-competitive economic ecosystems in places where before, little in the way of innovation existed.

The story of the Triangle, to completely generalize a 50-year transformation of an economy for brevity’s sake, goes something like this: throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the furniture and textile industries which had dominated the Carolinas’ economy for a century experienced marked decline.  In response, public and private sector leaders worked with the North Carolina Legislature to craft and fund new tools and institutions to enable the region and state to pivot from furniture and textiles to the development of a high-value bioeconomy. It’s been a fantastic success.

The Triangle has found success not only in producing an environment that supports innovation at a scale few regions in the world can compete with, but in managing its reputation as a global economic powerhouse with a level of precision and sophistication seen few other places.

This point was driven home to me the moment I stepped off the jet bridge at Raleigh-Durham International Airport [RDU].  “Welcome to the Research Triangle” read a massive glass and steel sign adorning a highly modern terminal.

Research Triangle branding was present throughout the airport [and, indeed, the region], which was nice, but that’s not necessarily my point. RDU’s design and technology modernity — its Terminal 1 was updated in 2012, and Terminal 2 is slated for upgrades — joined with the ubiquity of Research Triangle regional messaging (those signs don’t say ‘Welcome to Raleigh-Durham’, remember). Together, they send a loud and clear message to passengers- particularly business passengers who comprise upwards of 45% of domestic air travelers: you’ve entered a place of global business. From the moment I entered RDU to the moment I jumped in a cab, the message was clear. A heck of a way to start a trip if I’m a business person considering this region for investment, I thought.

Airports, by their very nature, play an outsized role in shaping outside public opinion about a region and a state.  Airport users are captive; if you are flying commercially into a community, you’ve got [with few exceptions] one place to enter and exit: that region’s airport. This means airports, fundamentally, offer an opportunity to contribute mightily to the writing of the critical first chapter and last chapter of a book of impressions for visiting decision-makers. There is a reason that cash-strapped airport authorities like those in Atlanta ($6 billion upgrade project), Las Vegas ($2.4 billion), Philadelphia ($5 billion), New York ($7.5 billion), Dallas ($2 billion) and Los Angeles ($4.1 billion) are nevertheless finding ways to add runways, renovate terminals and upgrade amenities in a modern-day transportation infrastructure boom.

Airports matter, and leaders on both the north and south anchors of Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor understand that. In Ames, the city has approved a plan to build a new terminal at Ames Municipal Airport, which may be the only airport in the country that abuts a major university research park- a major competitive advantage for the entire region. The Ames Economic Development Commission is at work raising funds to add a new storage hanger to the airfield as another component of the major Ames Municipal overhaul.

And the proposed new terminal at Des Moines International- slated, funding-dependent, for a 2024 opening- offers the Central Iowa region another generational opportunity to redefine its front door to the global community. The $400 million project would be one of the largest in the state’s history — a price tag befitting the opportunity it represents.

As thousands of Central Iowans continue their work to grow and recast our region as a truly global one, the attention many are paying to the way in which our global customers and colleagues enter our region and experience its first and last impressions, is apt.