BWI's economic punch aids nearby businesses

Airport-area outlook seen rising, despite travel slump

October 03, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

At Airport Square Amoco, managers say at least half the gas station-convenience store's business comes from travelers moving through Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Wendy's restaurant next door says at least one in five customers is headed to or coming from an airplane. And at the Hampton Inn-BWI Airport, it's about one-third, helping to consistently sell out the hotel Monday through Thursday, said Rick Homonai, general manager.

These are some of the businesses that benefit from their location in BWI's shadow. And, according to a report conducted for the Maryland Aviation Administration, those businesses contributed just a sliver of the $5.69 billion in economic activity spun off by the airport last year.

In all, more than 104,000 jobs were supported by the airport and its visitors in 2002, said the study conducted by Martin Associates, an aviation research firm in Lancaster, Pa., and released to The Sun yesterday.

More than 19 million people traveled through the airport last year, and the airport handled 554 million pounds of air cargo, according to the report.

Not all the numbers were positive. The travel slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ensuing economic downturn reduced the number of jobs, business and tax revenue generated directly by BWI. Airport jobs, for example, declined to 20,503 last year from 24,091 in 2000. State and local tax revenue dropped 24 percent, from $200 million to $153 million, over the same period, the report said.

But when the spinoff business is counted, the numbers mostly rose over the two-year period. The overall number of jobs rose to 104,758 last year from 84,937 in 2000, while state and local tax revenue increased to $781 million from $706 million in 2000, according to the study.

"Despite the recent challenges facing the aviation industry, business remains very good at BWI Airport," said Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs the airport. "We've seen this past summer that both domestic and international air travel continue to rise above the national average."

The airport reported that passenger traffic in July had nearly returned to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels for the first time.

An airport expansion plan under way should continue to boost the economic benefit to the greater region, they said.

Yesterday, Aris Melissaratos, state secretary of business and economic development, praised the airport for being an economic engine for the region and a crucial spoke in the state's transportation system. But Melissaratos, speaking to business leaders at a BWI Business Partnership-sponsored breakfast meeting, said the airport needs to do more to promote business development.

"There is a need for first-class and upper-class service, a balance with Southwest," he said. The discount, no-frills airline, which doesn't serve meals or assign seats, is the airport's largest carrier. "Southwest Airlines is not sufficient, Air Tran is not sufficient. It's good enough for most people but not for the CEOs we're trying to attract."

In fact, some area executives said the region's proximity to Washington was a more powerful lure for some companies.

Randall Griffin, president and chief executive of Corporate Office Properties Trust, one of the largest owners of office buildings in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, said few of his tenants were lured because of BWI. Many are government or defense contractors and wanted to locate near the National Security Agency or other defense contractors.

"The airport is not a generator," he said. "It's an amenity."

Neil Shpritz, the retiring executive director of BWI Business Partnership Inc., a nonprofit economic development group, said the airport is one factor contributing to the region's economic development, along with its location near other cities, major highways, universities and the port.

He now counts about 35 hotels in the BWI business district, up from just a handful 10 years ago. Occupancy overall averages more than 80 percent.

"Whether [businesses] are here because of the airport or to be close to the seat of government, having the ability to fly people in and out frequently plays into the decision," Shpritz said.

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