Bloomington, Ontario, and Memphis flying now!

Bloomington, Ontario, and Memphis flying now!

By David Lindberg

By David Lindberg

Chairman, Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition

There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion involving the status of transportation in northern Illinois for the past 18 months.

Most of the dialogue has centered around the Greater Rockford Airport (RFD) and its inability to attract and retain air passenger service. Never before has RFD attracted such attention and debate. Now after years of frustration, some promising developments are beginning to emerge.

Earlier this year, several civic and business groups led by the League of Women Voters,

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the Rockford Park District, the Rockford Register Star, the Freeport Journal Standard, Blackhawk State Bank, Stillman Bankcorp, the Council of 100 and others formed a group called the Regional Incentive for Community Excellence (R.I.C.E.).

One of the three priorities R.I.C.E. identified was how RFD could stimulate economic development in the region. Through research conducted by The Center for Government Studies at Northern Illinois University, several successful airports that have gone through struggles in the past similar to what we are experiencing were identified with the thought that we can learn through their “best practices.”

Last week and earlier this month, a delegation of Rockford business leaders and professionals visited three highly successful airports that overcame similar problems to what we have faced to study their “best practices”.

The three airports were the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Ontario International Airport outside Los Angeles and the Memphis International Airport.

In each location the airport director and staff as well as top government, community and airline executives spent countless hours with the Rockford R.I.C.E. delegation answering questions and explaining how they overcame the obstacles they faced. Out of almost 22 hours of meetings emerged several common threads.

First, a decision was made that the traditional methods for attracting service had not worked and that a new approach needed to be found.

Second, in each location the ultimate success of their airports was directly related to the business community involvement in attracting airline service.

And third, it was crucial that all aspects of the community, including the citizens, be recruited to work on the efforts jointly.

In Bloomington, very unconventional marketing efforts such as buying a billboard outside the corporate office of AIR TRAN were used. The billboard showed a family sitting on their suitcases at the end of a runway with a caption reading “800,000 People in Central Illinois Need A Ride To Orlando”. Every day when the airline officials came to work, they were reminded of the Bloomington airport. The result: AIRTRAN, has six non-stop flights a day to Atlanta.

In Ontario, 57 miles from LAX, a citizens’ group similar to the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition, coordinate publicity, community involvement and even acts as spokesperson for the airport. Their membership includes visionary citizens working side by side with business owners and elected officials to make sure that promoting continued growth at Ontario is a daily activity. They rolled out the red carpet for the R.I.C.E. delegation, and we discussed sister city status and a possible demonstration flight of community leaders and media as a test effort. In other words, you can fly between Rockford and Ontario instead of O’Hare and LAX.

In Memphis, FED EX, their major cargo carrier, partnered with the airport to recruit Northwest Airlines to establish a nationwide hub, showing that a cargo carrier operating mainly at night and a passenger carrier operating mainly during the day could share an airport and reduce operating costs to both carriers.

In Rockford, all these elements exist. Like Bloomington, about 400,000 people drive or bus to O’Hare every year; Like Ontario, the community partnering with government for marketing is a must. Like Memphis, UPS could partner with the community in recruiting a passenger carrier to share their costs.

Airports are the engines that drive a community’s economy. We have a truly “world class airport” that is positioned in the right place in both geography and time to become that economic engine for the northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin region. Now we need to develop our own best practices and bring government, business and the citizens together in a unified campaign.

If we can do that, I will look forward, down the road, to meeting with a delegation from another community wanting to study how the RFD success began.

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