Silence…………………………………………….. nothing but the hum of my Continental O-300 and the wind rushing over my windscreen as the Earth creeps up beneath my feet. Just at that tranquil moment where separation between earth and craft seems infinitesimally close, my ear discerns the whine of the stall horn and the seat of my pants feels the mains start to roll.
The silence is broken by my scream of victory as I execute a perfect landing that is far too infrequent. The moment is short-lived as I clean up my bird, pour on the coals, and feel the wheels release their grip from the runway again…………and again, enter into the quiet.
This is how I spent my summer evenings back in the mid 90s, left turns in the sky over Belvidere Airport (C77) where radio calls are not required and where the thunderous silence of one and their machine can be enjoyed uninterrupted.
Steve and Tina Thomas are the owners of this gem of an airport. Historically known as Belvidere Airport, today it is officially known as Poplar Grove Airport. Poplar Grove (the C77 identifier remains) is home to more than just an airport. It is home to a historic aviation campus complete with 1930s hangar and museum, one of the best GA maintenance facilities – Poplar Grove Airmotive, and Bel Air Estates residential airpark.
The real story here is how the airport evolved from a quiet airport with 30-40 aircraft to a thriving community with approximately 400 aircraft, 202 hangars, and 100 residential homes complete with runway access.
It’s often heard that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. But in the case of Poplar Grove Airport, this is a history lesson that should be applied to all GA airports, both private and public.
Back in August, just as school busses began meandering through the cornfields of rural Illinois, I visited my old stomping grounds to catch up with Steve. I’ve known Steve and Tina for over 20 years and it has been a thrill to watch this little airport mature into a thriving community. They purchased the airport from Steve’s father, Dick, back in 1994 but Steve’s involvement with the airport goes all the way back to C77’s genesis in the late ‘60s.
The Thomas family settled part of Illinois’ Boone County in the late 1800s as dairy farmers. Farming would be the primary focus of the family through several generations. But in the 1960s, Steve and his father were introduced to flying when they sold some farm buildings to a pilot. After the sale, the pilot took Steve and his father up for their first flight. Steve was 15 at the time and the hook was set.
Ratings and aircraft quickly followed. An Aeronca Chief, a Cessna 150, and Cessna 172 were all part of the Thomas fleet at one time or another over the next few years. The only thing missing was a convenient runway. Boone County was the only county in Illinois that didn’t have a public access airport. Looking to remedy the situation, Steve’s father and a friend purchased 288 acres of land to build an airport.
The land was acquired in the late 60s and C77 was finally established in 1972. The two cattle sheds became hangars, which still stand today. The cow yard south of the cattle sheds became the primary ramp, and the AO Smith Harvestore silo was repurposed to hold the airport beacon. The beacon was finally replaced this fall, but the silo remains!
After the airport’s first year in 1973, Dick was able to make the quantum leap from full-time dairyman to airport manager. Agriculture was still part of the business model as undeveloped airport land was leased to neighboring farmers to grow crops. Even today, dozens of acres of land in and around Poplar Grove’s three runways continue to alternate wheat and soybeans (low crops) year-after-year.
Concurrent with Dick’s tenure as airport manager, Steve continued to grow as a pilot while also cutting his teeth in the business world. During college, Steve had amassed thousands of hours in light twins but like so many other civilian pilots during the post-Vietnam War era, the flood of military pilots into the civilian sector placed the airline dream job on hold. Armed with real estate license and agriculture background, Steve ventured into farm management where he and a business partner enjoyed much success. One such example could be found in the successful turn-around and sale of a farm management company to a national company in the late 80s.
This success allowed Steve to return to the airport in the early 90s. By this time, the airport was sustaining itself with almost 40 aircraft now based there. Revenues were marginal at best. Steve said one “can’t make a living with 40 airplanes on a GA airport so we need to develop it and turn it into something with critical mass where we could make a living and create something that is important.”
THE LESSON WE SHOULD ALL LEARN
In 1993/94, Steve and Tina bought the airport from his father and believed they could “create something that is important.” They both understood there was no way to compete with Rockford Airport with its concrete runways, multiple ILS approaches, and supporting infrastructure. What C77 could potentially offer is very attractive land leases and hangar ownership. But above all else, the airport could offer an aviation lifestyle in the development of Bel Air Estates. Together, these elements would create a thriving airport community and serve as a model for other airports.
Land Lease & Hangar Ownership
Hangars were in demand but the scenario of constructing and renting out new hangars was not financially worthwhile. There was a quick realization by Steve that the airport was “Land rich, but cash poor” and he and Tina pulled out all the stops to attract more aircraft. They offered a 99-year land lease where most public airports only offer 15-30 year terms. Lease rates in the mid 90’s were $.10 per square foot per year. An alternative plan was developed that involved pre-selling hangars that were yet to be constructed. Once a specific number of buyers were committed to a row of hangars, only then would construction begin. This was a win-win situation. It was a win for Steve and Tina because they were able to develop the airport further while increasing revenues with negligible capital investment. And it was a win for the hangar owners because they were able to “own” their hangars and enjoy a 99-year land lease at absurdly low rates.
This business model was extremely effective and was repeated again in 1997, 1998, 1999, and again in 2004. All were sold out before construction began. Aside from the cost of the structure, fees range from $1,200 to $2,500 per year based on the size of the hangar (fees include taxes, land lease, and common area maintenance fee).
Aviation Lifestyle – Bel Air Estates
Concurrent with the hangar developments, the wheels of progress were also spinning towards a much larger endeavor, the creation of a fly-in community called Bel Air Estates. The goal of Bel Air Estates would be encourage the aviation lifestyle where one can live near those with similar aviation interests, live with their airplane, remain at an airport, and stay at home all at the same time.
Steve and Tina took on a businesslike approach to the airpark’s development with intense market research. They discovered 20,000 licensed pilots within an 80-mile radius. Many of these aviators were newly retired airline pilots based at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. They figured if they could capture the attention of ½ of 1% of this demographic, the development would be a success. [Today, the airpark is made up of a full spectrum of families including retirees and those with newborn and school-aged children. The resulting community is one that creates a rich social setting for young and old.]
Comfortable with these numbers, they pressed ahead with engineers to layout the community. The engineers were kept in check to ensure the creation of a neighborhood that would meet the needs of aviators and not typical homeowners.
The topography of the area is unlike most of northern and central Illinois. The shallow, rolling hills would actually give the homeowner the opportunity to build homes that “weren’t built on a pool table” like most airparks but built into the surrounding terrain. There exist three “high-spots” throughout the development that offer near panoramic views of the entire airport.
Other airpark features would include dedicated taxiways that would connect each house to the runway and common ramp. Automotive roadways would be built to standard department of transportation specifications to be serviced and maintained by the local municipality just like any other subdivision.
One final element that would be enjoyed by the homeowners was the construction of a dedicated sanitary sewer system. The primary purpose of the wastewater treatment facility would be to serve Bel Air Estates but would also supplement the Village of Poplar Grove.
NIMBY, CAVE, & BOONE COUNTY
Everything on paper looked fantastic. Momentum for the creation of Bel Air Estates was picking up steam until the development’s zoning went up for county review. Local citizens, some of which knowingly moved next door to a 30-year-old airport only three years prior, were given the opportunity to voice their objections to the Bel Air development. And voice their opinion they did.
The Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) minority came out in full force as 9-10 individuals fought tooth and nail against the development with outrageous arguments we’ve all heard before about noise, safety, pollution, etc. Steve could not overcome these CAVE people – Citizens Against Virtually Everything – and Boone County shuttered the development.
The battle was front-page news for months and egos were bruised and battered leaving war wounds that would last forever…so Steve thought. With wounds freshly scabbed over, a brief encounter with the mailman would change the future of Boone County, Village of Poplar Grove and Belvidere Airport, and get Bel Air Estates off the ground.
A Lesson In Civics
When Steve walked out to the mailbox to get the mail, he happened to catch his mailman who also happened to be the village president of Poplar Grove, which is a few miles north of Belvidere Airport. A conversation ensued between the two and an off-the-cuff remark was made about annexing the airport property to the village. The comment was in gest but they both realized there might be real bite to the concept. Theoretically, if this could happen, then people outside the village who objected to the development would not have any legal say in the matter.
Steve looked into this possibility further and learned it would actually be fairly easy to accomplish if executed correctly. The challenges were many but his skillset and method of execution on this next go-around were much more refined.
The biggest challenge was to bridge the land between the village and the airport some 3 miles away. This was necessary because in order to annex the airport land, land between the airport and the village must be annexed as well in order for the village to remain contiguous. This land was owned by several individuals and all readily agreed to annexation by Poplar Grove in support of the airport only if property taxes did not go up.
The annexation plan was intact and ready to go. The next move was to present the development to the village trustees. Steve made the effort to pitch his plan to each trustee, one at a time, over coffee. With a captured audience, he was able to demonstrate the benefits of such a community, aviation, and the airport. His efforts were successful and all of the trustees would speak in favor of the development. Public hearings for zoning approval were held and the annexation and Bel Air Estate development received their blessing to move ahead.
Final victory came during the 1995-1996 timeline. The news made front-page headlines again as Boone County officials and its citizens were completely surprised by Poplar Grove annexing 1,500 acres of land. What opened eyes further was the immediate approval of the once-beaten Bel Air Estates residential airpark.
The new village border extended three miles all the way to, but not including, the subdivision where the original objectors were located. As they were not within the new village boundaries, their objections to the newly approved development had no legal say in the matter. In short, Steve and the Village of Poplar Grove did a complete “end-run” around the county. And with that victory, Belvidere Airport was aptly renamed Poplar Grove Airport.
SHOVEL READY PROJECT
With the green light given, site improvements and construction began almost immediately on the nearly $4 million project. Home sites sold out in only four years and new homeowners were welcomed to Bel Air Estates with open arms.
Like most other residential airparks, covenants, setback restrictions, and a monthly maintenance fee apply. But unlike other airparks with their association groups, the homeowners at Bel Air Estates enjoy an environment where excessive bureaucracy is kept at bay. Steve and the airport are ultimately responsible for maintaining the airport and common areas, which Steve admits, “takes a lot of stress off the neighborhood” as HOAs induce infighting among neighbors “when personalities clash.” He also stated, “If you’ve got a problem, see me.” This approach provides immediate attention to the homeowners’ needs without the requirement for committee review.
POPLAR GROVE AIRPORT – A MODEL FOR PRIVATE AND PUBLIC AIRPORTS
In less than 10 years, Steve and Tina developed a sleepy little country airport into a vibrant community and demonstrated that not all airports need to remain “land rich and cash poor.” Through their successful execution of their business model, they were able to create a win, win, win scenario. Steve and Tina won by turning their airport into a sustainable enterprise, the hangar and home owners won by taking advantage of long-term land lease rates for hangars and fee simple home sites and the airport won by harnessing long-term revenues that keep the airport operational but also well-manicured like a “golf course or park.”
Steve summed it up best when he stated, “I’m motivated, I have more land at stake than 10 homeowners, it’s important to keep the place desirable. We’ve complemented the airport with a 9-acre lake in a park-like setting” consisting of manicured grass runways. In addition to the airport’s appearance, daily operations and capital improvements are always in motion. Most recently, the ramp, runway, and the runway’s parallel taxiway were resurfaced and the airport beacon replaced. “This all helps maintain property values” for our residents.
If you are thinking of ways to improve your airport, take a look at the successful model developed and executed by Steve and Tina Thomas. It’s a case study both private and public airports could learn from. C77 is an example of private sector capitalism at its best whose formula should be repeated over and over.