Image: Airport in Elkhart
Jennifer Shephard  /  The Elkhart Truth
Airport Manager Andy Jones officially opened the newly rehabilitated runway at Elkhart Municipal Airport during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday. Flights actually began landing a day earlier.
updated 8/7/2009 7:23:44 PM ET 2009-08-07T23:23:44

President Barack Obama has barely left town, and already city leaders are trumpeting what they call the first real impact of the economic stimulus plan — 10 inches of ordinary-looking concrete that they say will translate into millions of dollars of new business and long-term economic development.

For the past month and a half, workers for Rieth-Riley Construction Co. of Goshen and nearly a dozen subcontractors worked on a controversial facelift for the main runway at Elkhart Municipal Airport, funded by about $4 million in grants under the president’s recovery plan.

“The Elkhart area has seen the benefits,” Obama said during a quick visit to the area Wednesday. “Dozens were employed to resurface the runway at Elkhart airport.”

Almost as soon as the airspace over the region was reopened after Air Force One left Wednesday afternoon, a stream of planes started flying in. Municipal leaders said they were the first of many that would bring new business directly to the airport and generate spin-off spending for restaurants, hotels and stores in the Elkhart-Goshen area.

“Having a first-class general aviation airport that close” to the University of Notre Dame and its technology research programs “is going to be a huge attractor to new business in the area,” airport Manager Andy Jones said.

Gains in safety, savings
It’s a message that Jones, Mayor Dick Moore and other Elkhart leaders are eager to get out, because the runway project generated huge controversy when it was announced in March.

Most — probably all — of the 200 to 250 jobs Obama referred to were temporary, opponents said. It’s a nice runway, they said, but now what, especially since the airport doesn’t handle passenger flights.

What will Elkhart residents actually get out of it?

For one thing, a safer airport that not only cost local taxpayers nothing but that will actually save them money in the long term, Jones said.

“There were dozens of places where you could walk out on the runway and pick up a golf ball-size piece of asphalt,” he said.

That’s now been fixed, whereas replacing the runway on its normal schedule in 3½ years would have cost taxpayers about $250,000 for their share of the federal project.

And the new runway is projected to last about 30 years, compared to only 10 years for the old one, Jones said.

Bigger planes could mean more business
Still, Jones acknowledged that there was a perception that because the airport doesn’t offer passenger service, “it doesn’t benefit everyone” — a perception he called misguided.

“Large employers have aircraft based here,” he said. “They move customers, employees and executives.”

The full impact, Moore said in an interview with The Elkhart Truth, “goes beyond the workers seen out here.”

“It is not a stretch to realize this project creates and maintains many jobs not so evident,” he said.

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For one thing, the new runway can handle flights up to two-thirds heavier than it could before the work was done, Jones said — even, in a pinch, Air Force One, although that’s not recommended.

“This can hold almost any airplane,” he said, adding that the runway had already led one company to base a bigger plane here, creating three new, permanent jobs to maintain it.

“By doing that through the economic recovery and reinvestment act, with the new runway, that helped to secure a large aircraft,” he said.

Preparing for ‘the next Silicon Valley’
Down the road, Jones projected a major influx of new businesses springing up around the Center for Nano Science and Technology, which was established last year at the University of Notre Dame, in nearby South Bend.

“They’re predicting 10, 15, 20 years in the future, this Michiana area could be the next Silicon Valley, he said, which would mean “new companies producing new products no one has thought about before.”

By demonstrating a willingness to invest in the airport, Jones said, the Elkhart-Goshen region “sends a signal to businesses, corporations and entrepreneurs” that it’s worth moving there.

Had the project been shot down, he said, “why would you be interested in Elkhart?”

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Nick McGurk of NBC station WNDU of South Bend, Ind., and Josh Weinhold of The Elkhart Truth.

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