HAECO. HondaJet. FedEx. Cessna …

The question is “What’s next?” and the answer, hopefully, is “Plenty.”

Guilford County officials are hoping that Piedmont Triad International Airport’s (PTIA) coming new large mega-site will pull in high-value aviation companies and create a lot of jobs.   Area economic development officials are laser focused on adding more aviation company names to the current list and the new mega-site is quickly becoming ground zero for economic development efforts in Guilford County.

PTIA Executive Director Kevin Baker said airport officials are pleased with the progress on the airport’s taxiway bridge over I-73 that will open up a huge new aviation-centered area for development.

“The taxiway bridge is about 80 percent complete and should be done in June of next year,” Baker said this week.

But that’s only part of what’s needed before all that land can be used by aviation companies.

“That’s just the bridge,” he said. “We also have a couple of associated projects.”

According to Baker, one critical element is the construction of a new airport surveillance radar (ASR) tower at PTIA. That’s the spinning radar at airports that, among other things, tracks planes and monitors weather conditions. In addition, there are runway renovations and other upgrades underway that will help when the mega-site opens.

Baker said all the pieces are falling together.

“We’re moving along at a good clip,” he said.

He also said the access to the new land connected by the taxiway bridge – along with the completion of other projects required before the land can be used by aviation and aeronautics companies – should mean the new expanse will be ready for business in 2018. There’s still about 150 acres of unused land on the airport side of the bridge, but the large swaths just across I-73 will offer enough space for just about any aviation company that might want to open shop in Guilford County.

Once the bridge with the new taxiway is complete, it will open up about 600 acres of land, and there’s another 300 or 400 acres that could be added for the right projects, bringing the total to nearly 1,000 acres. Pleasant Ridge Golf Course, owned by the airport, is nearby and the airport continues strategic property acquisition as land becomes available.

“It’s a moving target,” Baker said of the land acquisition efforts.

This gives Guilford County a very large area of useable land with good highway and runway access.

As for how much land is needed for prospective aviation clients, it varies. However, Guilford County should be ready to meet the demand of most aviation initiatives.

“Obviously, it depends on the project,” Baker said of potential land needs.

Three years ago, area economic development officials had a dream – more like a fleeting pipedream – of luring Boeing to PTIA when Boeing was looking for a site for a major project. It’s questionable whether Guilford County ever had a real shot at that grade-A prospect. However, that discussion focused more attention on the area’s hopes for expanding the aviation business in Guilford County in a big way.

“The Boeing project was 430 acres,” Baker said, adding that

HondaJet and HAECO Americas are now using about 125 acres each.

Baker said most projects in the industry would need at least 100 acres, and he added that if an aviation business requires aircraft storage space, that will bump up acreage needs considerably.

According to Baker, airport officials work closely with economic development officials to market PTIA and the surrounding land. For instance, he said, he often works with Brent Christensen, the president of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce who’s also the lead staffer for the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA).

“We’re definitely a team,” Baker said. “They’ll try to track down leads and bring us in and to see how we can work to get there.”

Baker said his job is to have a well functioning airport with modern features and space for development while the economic development officials such as Christensen do most of the site marketing.

“The airport’s primary role is to provide a product,” Baker said. “The secondary role is to help sell that.”

Any time a company is looking at a mega-site – whether it’s for the aviation industry or any other – one question that always comes up in those discussions is how long it will take to get the infrastructure in place to support the proposed project.

According to Baker, one selling point is that the water, electricity and additional infrastructure needs for most projects are in place at the site. He said some of that was forethought and some infrastructure was there to begin with.

“Our sites have really good utility services,” Baker said. “We’re fortunate.”

He said there’s a water tower is near the site, the electric grid is very capable and there’s good road access from several directions.

“There’s Regional Road, which is a five-lane road that doesn’t have much traffic,” Baker pointed out.

He added that, even with the new road construction and existing road access, there would no doubt be some North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) involvement in a major new project at the airport.

“There’s always something the DOT has to help us with,” he said, adding that that could be new turn lanes or additional traffic lights.

According to Baker, the airport needed to have much of the preliminary work out of the way to make the site attractive to prospects since major players in aviation and aeronautics often want to move quickly.

“If you can’t be ready, you lose,” Baker said. “You have to have some level of infrastructure in place.”

He added that environmental impact studies have already been conducted. He said the airport has conducted the studies for “Finding of No Significant Impact,” known as “FONSI,” which is pronounced just like the Henry Winkler character in Happy Days. Those studies make sure, for instance, that a project won’t wipe out the world’s last vestige of the endangered red-cheeked, white-footed, yellow-tailed squirreled or have some similar deleterious effect. Baker said those studies can take a lot of time, and he added that, by doing much of that work ahead of time, it makes it a lot easier to get a site ready in a hurry.

“Environmental analysis can take a lot of time,” Baker said. “We want to make sure that doesn’t become the long pole. We’ve turned a 24- to 36-month process down to three or four months.”

The “long pole” is the part of the project that takes the most time.

With the major project finishing up over the next year, Christensen is trying to live up to his end of the bargain: Finding aviation and aerospace companies to use that space and bring economic development to the area.

“It’s a unique opportunity for an airport,” Christensen said.

He said he believes that developing the land to draw aviation clients showed real foresight by airport and area officials, and he added that one reason he chose to take the job in Guilford County two years ago is that he saw a huge deal of potential in this area, with the aviation success being a key element of that.

“Kudos to the board of the airport and staff and folks at the state level for helping us get the taxiway bridge,” Christensen said.

He said the new sites becoming available with the completion of the bridge will be a nice product for economic development officials to show off.

“It gives us some big swings at bat,” he said.

Christensen said it gives this area the potential to bring in more aircraft maintenance and manufacturing companies, as well those that support those businesses. He said HondaJet and HAECO had been big success stories and that more of the same would be a real benefit to the local economy. Area economic development officials frequently say that they consider the aviation industry as central to Guilford County’s economic success. They say it is an industry that can help replace the loss of jobs in as textiles, furniture and others industries that have been leaving for decades.

Christensen said that, in order to attract major aviation industry projects, it’s not just important for Guilford County to have the available land with runway access – it’s also key, he said, to have a deep and replenishing pool of aviation workers. He said that will be a key consideration for any aviation company looking at this area.

“The key for that is making sure we build that talent pipeline,” Christensen said.

He said one big selling point for aviation companies is the labor pool here, and he added that there’s been a real focus on training workers to have the skills needed by the aviation industry. Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) plays a big role in that, but that effort even extends to area high schools.

Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr said there’s a good deal of emphasis in the school system on aviation related careers. There’s the Aviation Academy at Andrews High School – an Early College program that offers college classes for students who think they would like a career as a pilot, an aircraft engineer, avionics technician or in a related occupation. The Academy provides paid internships with aviation companies and job-shadowing opportunities. It also offers industry certifications and licenses.

“That academy has been in place for a few years and it allows kids to get real hands-on experience,” Carr said. “They can get their pilots license there too.”

She said the school system works with NC A&T State University on some aviation training programs and has several other efforts as well.

“Weaver Academy has wide range of high-tech programs with a lot of work in advanced manufacturing,” she added, noting that that work often related to aviation.

Western Guilford High School, which is near the airport, also has programs that tie in with the aviation industry.

Carr said the new school superintendent is very focused on educating students for careers in various trade and technical skills, including those related to aviation.

“It’s certainly a growing area,” she said of aviation.

She said the programs are a success not only from an education standpoint but also from that of advancing economic development in the area.

Phoenix Academy, a charter school in High Point, is another example of how area educational institutions are giving students the skills they need for a career in aviation. Phoenix Academy has an extensive aviation program that offers paid internships in the industry, helping the county meet its increasing need for aviation workers.

Christensen said that starting at the high school level really helps Guilford County demonstrate this area’s level of commitment to the industry – something that’s very attractive to aviation companies looking for places for their next project. He said the companies want to be confident that a skilled work force will be there, not just when the open shop but down the road as well.

“They want to know it will be there at day 500 and day 5,000,” Christensen said.

Currently, there’s also a lot of optimism surrounding PTIA. Earlier this year, Piedmont Triad Airport Authority Board Member Jim White told GCEDA board members that PTIA was a finalist for a “very, very big endeavor,” and more recently, Kip Blakely, vice president of customer and government relations for HAECO, offered area economic development leaders a very positive outlook for the prospects of future job growth from his company at PTIA.

Christensen said the aviation companies already here draw a lot of attention to the airport.

“HondaJet is the poster child,” Christensen said. “HAECO is having continued success and Cessna is a quiet success there.”

Cessna runs a major service center at PTIA that maintains and repairs a large number of small planes.

Christensen attended the Farnborough International Airshow in England in July to help drum up business and he said that PTIA is known in the aviation industry world wide, and becoming better known.

“They know HondaJet; they know HAECO – they know the work force is here,” he said.

Christensen added that it even puts Guilford County as a possible contender for large projects such as the one Boeing at least glanced at Guilford County for three years ago. He said that those types of major initiatives are of course hard to get because the competition is fierce.

“Everybody in the country wanted that project,” he said of the Boeing project three years ago.

Baker said that Cessna doesn’t get a whole lot of headlines but that company is very active at PTIA.

“It’s a very good operation,” he said.

When asked about FedEx and the fact that that company has never expanded its PTIA-based operations to the degree it expected, Baker said a lot of circumstances changed after the company made its initial plans. He said FedEx opened at PTIA in perhaps the worst month economically that anyone alive today has seen – June 2009. He said the rise in the use of electronic documents also hurt FedEx’s business.

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips serves on the GCEDA Board and is one of many keeping a close eye on progress at PTIA. Earlier this year, the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of the airport and its plans to contribute to the county’s economic success.

“I think it’s a vitally important opportunity for future development – not only for Guilford County but for the entire region,” Phillips said.

He said he was very pleased with HAECO’s progress and future plans.

“That’s going to be hugely impactful for this county and the region,” he said. “That tells you something about the commitment to aviation.”

Earlier this year, at a county commissioners retreat, Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing hinted that the county may at some point be asked to pony up funds to support the mega-site. However, Phillips said that discussion had not been had yet.