Years of talk about the future of the Civil Air Terminal on the northern edge of Dover Air Force Base is finally turning into action, thanks to an upcoming pact that dramatically eases rules on site use.
“The new agreement is a game changer,” said Linda Parkowski, executive director of the Kent Economic Partnership. That’s why in June it hired a consultant to figure out the “highest and best use” of the site, with a report expected by the end of 2019. General aviation (aka passenger service), maintenance, air cargo and aviation training are being considered, she said.
Whatever happens involves multiple agencies and governments. The Delaware Department of Transportation owns the 20-acre terminal, which is run by the Delaware River and Bay Authority. Any deal requires using runways at the air base, part of the federal Department of Defense. The adjacent Kent County AeroPark covers 13 acres, and all 33 acres are in Dover’s municipal limits.
“We’re working hard to coordinate all the governments and thinking ahead to lay the groundwork to make it easier for when a developer comes in,” said Stephanie J. Johnson, assistant planning director for DelDOT.
The current joint use agreement is for 25 years, limits civil use to 13,500 takeoffs and landings a year and requires flights to give 72-hour notice, Johnson said. The Horsepond Road terminal now draws only about 200 takeoffs and landings a year.
The new agreement, she said, is for 50 years, almost doubles the annual limit to 25,000 takeoffs and landings and eliminates the advance notice. Johnson hopes the agreement is signed this fall. The language is finalized, but an environmental assessment from increased use is still to come.
“Dover AFB is waiting for the state-funded environmental assessment to better understand the potential impact to the base,” said Maj. Ashleigh A. Peck, chief of 436AW public affairs at the base. “We’ll work with Air Force experts to review the data once the assessment is complete.”
“Kent County has always wanted to do something more” with the Civil Air Terminal, Parkowski said. Webpages detail a 2009 business plan from a consultant, a 2012 briefing that finds “great potential” and a 2014 request for proposals. A 2017 study by the partnership and the Greater Kent Committee targeted logistics and distribution as one of three promising industries for the county, she said, and this land is a very promising spot for it.
The 2009 plan, prepared for the DRBA, concluded that that the terminal “could serve as a nexus for economic development in Dover.” It found value in air cargo, passenger service to and from Florida, air cargo from Central and South America and airplane maintenance.
The 2012 briefing focused on enhancing and expanding air cargo and concluded that public money is “scarce” and the “risk is real” for the $15 million to $20 million estimated for infrastructure development needs.
The 2014 RFP from the Delaware Economic Development Office focused on “expanding the aircraft parking capacity … to accommodate large civilian air cargo aircraft and provide parking for NASCAR-race-related aircraft.”
But no matter what the idea, there had to be money to set it up and the federal government had to agree to give a long-term commitment to improve access to the base’s runways for civilian use.
Parkowski was among a delegation at the national AirCargo Conference earlier this year pitching the operation, which the DRBA calls “the best, least-congested big airport east of the Mississippi River.”
“We have these assets. Are you interested?” she recalled saying. “They said ‘All you have is a vision. You need a market assessment.’” Hence the hiring of the consultant.
The biggest assets are access to the airbase’s two runways, which at 12,900 and 9,600 feet are Delaware’s longest, and one of only seven airports in the United States that serve as landing facilities for the Space Shuttle. The Civil Air Terminal’s webpage also cites 24-hour, all-weather operation; a new six-acre asphalt parking ramp that can accommodate up to 60 aircraft; adjacency to the Kent County AeroPark, with land available for development; a location inside the air base perimeter fence, providing 24-hour security; and seven taxes that potential businesses wouldn’t have to pay.
“We recognize in the state what a valuable asset this is and the significant number of jobs it could bring,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping to maximize the use, and we’d like to bring in high-paying jobs.”
By Ken Mammarella