WILMINGTON — Officials in Clinton County foresee a bright future for the Wilmington Air Park and for the Clinton County economy — even in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement that Amazon would end its air cargo pilot project here and sink $1.4 billion and 2,700 jobs into the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
“We’re certainly disappointed with their decision,” said Joe Hete, president and CEO of ATSG, which provides service and maintenance operations and cargo handling staff for Amazon. “I know that us, the Port Authority and the state gave it our best shot. We made it as attractive as we could to Amazon.”
A press release from Amazon stated, “As we considered places for the long-term home for our air hub operations, Hebron [site of CVG] quickly rose to the top of the list with a large, skilled workforce, centralized location with great connectivity to our nearby fulfillment locations, and an excellent quality of living for employees,” said Dave Clark, Amazon senior vice president of worldwide operations. “We feel strongly that with these qualities as a place to do business, our investments will support Amazon and customers well into the future.”
Many frustrated, if not angry, commenters on the Wilmington News Journal’s Facebook page and at wnewsj.com question whether local and state authorities did enough to lure Amazon here for the long haul.
“We jumped through hoops to get things up and running here for Amazon and performed well on the service end,” he said of the pilot project. “Of course we were all under confidentiality agreements, but I have confidence the state put forward a good proposal to Amazon.
“Reports are that Amazon is going to spend $1.4 billion, and if Kentucky is offering $40 million in incentives, that’s a small percentage, so I have to think that much of the reason is due to Cincinnati’s current cargo operations,” Hete added. “People will always speculate about why we didn’t get it; I’m not sure what ruled the day.”
Hete said the biggest immediate disappointment is having to tell about 300 employees, primarily cargo handlers, that they would be losing their jobs. He said most of those employees are full-time.
Dan Evers, executive director of the Clinton County Port Authority, which owns the air park, said, “It’s not the news that we wanted. While we’re disappointed with the decision, we respect their right to make it. We don’t know what went into the decision, but we’re hopeful that we’ll have the opportunity to work with [Amazon] in the future.”
Evers said he is proud of the effort that went into trying to land Amazon long-term; he said it was a strong collaborative effort that included ATSG, the Port Authority, city, county and state officials, JobsOhio and the Dayton Development Coalition.
“The experience leading up to the decision was a positive one,” Evers said. “ATSG and its affiliates, the Port Authority and the air park have helped validate the business model. That’s the go-forward. It was a pilot project and we proved to everyone what we already knew — that the air park is extremely viable for aviation and cargo operations, and that’s a truth to take forward.”
“We put our shoulders to the wheel to make a strong business case, and it’s an exercise we’ll repeat in the future,” Evers said.
“We’ll re-embark on the journey along with the Port to see what additional business we can bring to the air park,” said Hete. “I think ATSG remains in a very favorable position long-term and that benefits the air park and the community.”
Evers pointed out that in 2010, shortly after DHL’s exit from Wilmington, there were just four employers and about 700 employees at the air park. Now, he said, even after the Amazon pilot project is gone, “there are a dozen companies with over 1,300 employees” at the air park and “maintenance operations here are robust.”
“Once DHL pulled out in 2009, we [ATSG] devoted ourselves to maintenance capabilities, plus there was the addition of the hangar in 2014, and we’re keeping them full,” Hete said. He added that ATSG still has 2,500 to 2,600 employees nationwide — and more than 1,300 even after the Amazon pilot project ends.
Hete said ATSG will continue to service existing customers and he expects the operations here to grow again, including with the possibility that, as Amazon’s CVG fleet grows, ATSG would be on the “short list” to service and maintain those planes. “We’ve proven we have the capabilities,” he said.
Clinton County Commissioners President Kerry R. Steed said local officials knew Amazon was looking at multiple locations to site an air freight sorting facility. He said he and others hoped Amazon would see the strategic advantages that the Wilmington Air Park offers with its dual runways, the control Amazon would enjoy without a lot of other commercial airline traffic, plus “scalability.”
Nevertheless, local officials have not been placing all their aspirations for the local economy upon the air park, said Steed.
“We’ve got growth and economic development all over this county. So the thinking that we’ve pinned our hopes on just the air park, is an incorrect one,” he said.
Since DHL left the air park in 2009, the prospect of new sorting operations for air freight has been a small aspect of local officials’ overall economic plan, added Steed.
Clinton County Commissioner Pat Haley said the Amazon news is certainly a disappointment. Commissioners and other locals are “not privy to the strategic planning of large companies. I’m sure a lot of factors were considered when that decision was made,” he said.
Haley also said, “I intend to continue to make Clinton County as attractive as possible to potential businesses by keeping taxes low, our infrastructure strong, and regulations few. I feel as county commissioner those are things within our control, and we have done that historically.”
Clinton County Commissioner Brenda K. Woods said she is very disappointed by the announcement. When a big employer chooses to locate elsewhere, that’s a fitting time to remind ourselves of the great companies already here, she said.
“I think we also have to back those businesses that are here, and we need to pat them on the back and give them the kudos — at the same time that we’re all frustrated and upset — and help those [existing] businesses in any way we can,” said Woods.
She said as a new commissioner, she plans to meet with different people and perhaps see what happened regarding Amazon, and learn where there may have been missed opportunities.
The Wilmington Air Park is comprised of more than 1,900 acres with a fully functioning airport, as well as three million square feet of office, warehouse and hangar space.
The Port Authority said in January that it has been looking to reopen the second runaway at the air park to increase its cargo capacity. A second runway would allow the air park to potentially gain new cargo customers and help current ones expand.
The most recent runway in the United States to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as Category III is located at the Wilmington Air Park. The Clinton County Port Authority and LGSTX Services, Inc. received word from the FAA in late 2016 that the Instrument Landing System (ILS) on Runway 22R has been officially certified at Category III/E/3.
“This certification provides a significant opportunity for our current customers, as well as a compelling benefit for prospective tenants and users of the Air Park, as it puts our ILS capacity on par with any major airport around the country,” said Evers.
The Clinton County Port Authority Board of Directors authorized the purchase and installation of a new 20-antenna array, that met the technical standards required by the FAA, earlier this year. This $250,000 investment facilitated the upgrade in technical capacity and service necessary to achieve Cat III certification.
The Wilmington Air Park is the only airport in the United States with an FAA-certified Cat III/E instrument landing system that is not owned, operated and maintained by the FAA.