Southern Illinois Airport in rural Jackson County may be the best kept economic development secret in Southern Illinois right now.
Last week, the airport authority’s board signed off on a $13 million vertical construction project. It encompasses three new hangars to allow for business expansions that will create more than 100 new high-tech aviation jobs. Other business expansions may add several dozen additional employment opportunities.
“We’ve been quietly putting this together for a while,” Gary Shafer, the airport’s manager, said late last week.
The project also includes construction of a new 8,300-square-foot Airport Terminal Building that will house the Airport Authority and a new restaurant/bar, Shafer said.
Two of the four new hangars will house companies that tear down decommissioned aircraft, in addition to providing maintenance and repair services to those still flying. The airport is constructing the 25,000-square-foot “Hangar 10” for Crucial Aviation, LLC.
This company tears down smaller aircraft such as the Embraer 135 and others that carry 100 passengers or fewer. The company plans to hire 63 new workers, mostly skilled aircraft mechanics, Shafer said.
The airport’s new 25,000-square-foot “Hangar 11” will house Galaxy Aviation, LLC, which is a similar company that specializes in tearing down larger airplanes built to transport 100 or more passengers, such as the Boeing 737. This company plans to hire up to 40 new employees, Shafer said.
Both companies will work closely with Southern Illinois University’s Aviation Department and plan to hire students in the SIU aircraft maintenance technical program as interns and apprentices. “It’s a very nice marriage coming together between education and the workforce as a development partner,” he said.
The third hangar that has been greenlighted for construction is a 12,000-square-foot space — “Hanger 2” as it has been labeled on the blueprint — that will house Flightlight. That is the airport’s fixed-base operator, which provides overnight storage of aircraft, flight training, aircraft rental, aircraft maintenance, avionics installations, and fuel and ground services for all aircraft. The new space is needed because Flightline has outgrown its current space at the airport, Shafer said.
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The new construction project will also pave the way for another business, Code 1 Aviation, to expand its wings inside its current shared hangar space. Currently, Code 1 Aviation is sharing space with Galaxy Aviation and Crucial Aviation. These latter two companies only employ a handful of administrative staff at present and needed a space at the airport as they were preparing to launch their businesses. But it’s become a bit cramped. With both of them getting new hangars of their own, Code 1 Aviation plans to grow its operation and hire an additional 18 employees, Shafer said. Code 1 Aviation modifies and rehabs vintage military aircraft. The new employees they hire will be a mix of aviation mechanics and student interns and apprentices from the SIU program.
In addition to the airport authority’s construction projects, Air Methods, operating as Arch Helicopters, is constructing a two-building complex on the field to support their operations with Southern Illinois Healthcare. The company has 13 people on the field now and operates 24/7 for emergency transport utilizing the most capable helicopter in the region, Shafer said. The partnership with SIH is related to the hospital seeking a designation from the Illinois Department of Public Health as a Level II Trauma Center.
Shafer said this construction project is part of a long-term plan that’s coming to fruition at the airport; work is slated to begin at the airport this winter.
“There’s 132 employees that are projected to come to the field in the next couple of years as all of these businesses ramp up,” Shafer said. “That’s good for us, and it’s good for the region. These are high-wage positions.”
Shafer said it’s also encouraging that SIU students graduating from the school’s renowned aviation program will be able to find good-paying work in Southern Illinois, should they choose to make this region their home.
The business growth at the airport has been supported on a number of different fronts. That includes a road construction project that was completed last fall and an extension of the airport’s fiber optic cable service. The extension will service two existing tenants at the airport, as well as any future companies that land there.
Earlier this month, the Delta Regional Authority announced a nearly $75,000 grant to help with the project. The tenants that will receive high-speed service under the plan are the Illinois National Guard and Yates Awning, which moved to the airport last spring. “They’ve been living with dial-up service,” Shafer said. The ability to offer high-speed internet service, as well as secure networks, is crucial to business recruitment, Shafer said. The total $330,000 project will extend the service further into the air field, he said, similar to how cities construct sewer and water infrastructure in anticipation of future growth.