GSP 360: Beyond the Runway

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An aerial view of the GSP footprint, with available space in blue.

Greenville Spartanburg Airport has gotten a lot of attention lately—mostly due to its $120 million renovation in the past few years.  Although the Wingspan renovation project has received the lion’s share of the press, there’s a much larger project already in the works—one that could continue to grow the area surrounding the airport, as well as the local economies in both Greenville and Spartanburg counties.

AN AIRPORT ECONOMY

New car rentals. Dueling breweries at either gate. Dunkin’ Donuts. Glass walls, new baggage areas, and an entirely new North Wing. All of it necessary, important, and expected to boost the economic impact of an airport that already claims to generate $1.9 billion for the local economy.

With more than 1.8 million passengers each year, and six major airlines, GSP International Airport is a crucial part of the Upstate economy. But outside of the aviation facilities, and a FedEx distribution facility that rounds out at about 120,000 square feet, you had seen the best of what the airport had to offer once you left the campus—whether that be flying out to Atlanta or driving on to I-85.

Until they began looking beyond the runway.

When Dave Edwards first stepped up as President and CEO of the airport in 2009, he did what anyone coming into that position might do—he took a step back and evaluated the direction, mission, vision and goals of the airport.

“In our case, there was historically very much a decision made that the airport was not going to move into major development of airport property unless it was very specifically tied to the development of aviation related facilities,” Edwards says. “That was just a mindset over the years.”

But in evaluating that mindset, Edwards saw something was missing. The airport, while profitable—even without drawing taxes from the local base—needed to stay competitive with other airports and to other airlines. In order to keep people using the airport, rather than travelling to North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, or Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, the rates had to stay low, as well.  While many airports can achieve this through tax dollars or higher traffic numbers, GSP faced a challenge.

“I felt, at the time, that we needed to redo the plan and re-validate things that we thought were valid, and maybe move in some new directions that we identified throughout the process,” he says. “But, we truly needed to develop some of this property because it would help us deliver some of those core services and the mission that we’re responsible for. “

So, in 2009, Edwards ordered a master land development study that would examine the area surrounding the airport—lands owned by the airport but not utilized in general aviation uses like runways, taxiways, cargo or terminals.  The initial thought: that more than 2,500 acres of land could be used for outside development like office buildings, distribution facilities, commercial uses, and more.

The draw to develop this land was twofold. Not only could it provide another revenue source for the airport, which would help keep GSP cost-competitive in the market, but it could also be a boon to the local economy.

This—the economic impact to the area—was tempting.

“If we had the availability to bring development projects on to the airport that generate good paying jobs and a high number of jobs, and we have the property that is attractive to a development project, then we have somewhat of an obligation to try to help bring those developments to our community and thereby further improve the quality of life in the Upstate and the opportunities,” Edwards says.

PLANNING, INTERRUPTED

It was during this planning time—the planning study hadn’t even been fully adopted yet—that GSP was approached by the South Carolina Ports Authority about a project in Greer.

The Inland Port Project—a direct link between manufacturers in the Upstate and the Port of Charleston—needed about 60 to 70 acres of the airport’s land to develop the project the way they envisioned it. The project would provide manufacturers and distributors access to the Port of Charleston via direct rail link—speeding up a process that in previous years would mean logistical connections between trucking, rail and the port.

For Edwards, that was just the sign he needed.

“That happened to coincide very nicely with the fact that we were in a land use development planning study at the time,” he says. “We knew that that particular property, of which we owned about 350 acres of land in that area…that we had a desire to develop that as a logistics-type facility.”

It also expanded the realm of possibilities; what was once thought of as air-to-ground logistics took on a whole new life as a facility that could, potentially, mean that air, ground, rail and sea were all available to manufacturers in the Southeast, through a project on airport land.

But what the port project also did was get the development project—now called GSP 360—into working order.

“If the inland port project had not come along when it did, we would probably still be in the throes of going through some more planning and design—specifically about moving forward with certain tracts,” Edwards states. “I think that [the Inland Port] project was really an impetus for us to get a jumpstart on GSP 360.”

But the impetus didn’t stop with the Inland Port. Not long after the Inland Port project began, GSP inked a deal with Illinois-based Centerpoint for space for BMW’s new export warehouse, which would expand over two phases of development.

Its location? Right beside the Inland Port.

INSIDE GSP 360

The space that comprises GSP 360 is varied. It consists of 2,578 acres, and most of the land is in Spartanburg, although there are two segments of land with space in Greenville County.

The land, as a whole, is divided into nine separate tracts, each with a different size and usage recommendation. For example, Tract “G”—250 acres that fronts I-85 and Brockman-McClimon Road—is prime location for retail, hospitality and commercial uses. Meanwhile, Tract “C” boasts 112 acres and was determined—no doubt based on its proximity to the airport campus itself—to be best used in aviation and aviation support.

Each project on these tracts would be available only through long-term leases, which would protect the airport eventual control over the land, and therefore, of the airport’s own growth.

“That’s pretty typical for airports,” Edwards notes. “They buy it so they can control it, and the best way to do that is to retain ownership of it.”

In the book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, authors John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay examine the boom of airport-centric communities. Where the airport once sat outside major cities, they have continued to draw more and more aviation business to them. More and more, you’ll see commercial properties, hotels and restaurants and even residential communities sprouting up near these new urban centers.

Although it seems a long way off for GSP to become its own aerotropolis—to rival those in South Korea (Songdo International) or Washington D.C. (Dulles) or Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth and surrounding Las Colinas)—the truth is that it may not be very far off, at all.

SITE WISE

While it seems that the airport serves to gain much from the development of its surrounding lands, the reality is that the benefit spans far beyond the campus of GSP, and even beyond the companies who already call that area home.

For one thing, economic recruitment efforts, and the recruitment of companies to the area, may see a boost with the addition of the new inventory.

“Our inventory of serviceable sites is limited in Greenville,” says Mark Farris, President and CEO of Greenville Area Development Corporation (GADC). “We struggle to find larger parcels, especially that are in proximity to the interstate, have water and sewer, and have good transportation access.  Anything that we can add to our inventory would be a real advantage for us moving forward.”

What’s more, Farris says, is that the land that GSP 360 offers is available in large parcels, creating a larger opportunity for larger entities who need vast amounts of space. Those parcels—called “megasites”—typically comprise areas of high development for the purpose of promoting business clusters in a region.

“The megasite is important to have in the region,” he says. “It’s difficult in Greenville county, as urbanized as we are, to put together a 1,500-acre parcel property. Although it’s not impossible, it would require different land owners coming together to do that.”

Although he adds that “Megasites are rare, and you really only have a couple of those kinds of projects a year that might be looking in South Carolina,” the reality is that the availability of this kind of property could be a big tilt in the scales, if it came down to the Upstate versus another region.

The other selling point is, of course, the proximity to the Inland Port, which is a huge draw for manufacturing and distribution companies.

“There are 95 Million people within an hour drive of inland port facility, so when you’re talking about trucking and bringing goods and services in from a large area of the southeast and that helps the companies utilizing the port,” says John Lummus, President and CEO of Upstate Alliance.  While Upstate Alliance typically focuses in the five target markets of automotive, aerospace, advanced materials, bioscience, and energy, one area that they tend to deal with a lot is logistics—making the area surrounding GSP a huge asset. In fact, he says, in recruiting efforts, the port often comes up as part of the discussion…”a lot.”

“From my perspective, yes, that is going to be a very valuable area for future economic development in the Upstate, because it’s near the inland port,” Lummus says. “The way we see it in the big picture is that the inland port is a great economic development asset for the Upstate—both for our existing companies that are utilizing that facility to get their goods in and out more quickly and easier, and also for the attraction that it gives other companies that want to locate here and have access to the port.”

A HUGE IMPACT

In the end, the area is sure to grow—and grow quickly—but if there are any guesses as to its projected economic impact, each is as good as another.

“What is the impact of a 150 room hotel? What is the impact of a large office building? What’s difficult is that those are much different and must be done on a case by case basis,” says Edwards of projecting the economic potential of the land in GSP 360. “What we like is that the Upstate is very business and manufacturing driven…we have a more holistic approach to how we approach aviation services and what we need to be paying attention to.”

And while GSP continues to look at each tract of land to be developed, the key is that there’s no rush…and no timeline.

“We’re not rushing into anything,” says Edwards of the project. “That’s the key here. It’s not about developing all the property as quickly as you can. We can take our time; we’ve had this property for a long time and it’s not going anywhere. We can make sure it’s the right type of development, not only for us—because it’s important for the airport that it’s compatible—but also that it is compatible for the community.”

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