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New Castle County investigates new uses for Wilmington Airport



Three commercial passenger airlines have tried— and failed— to establish lasting operations at the Wilmington Airport in New Castle over the past two decades. Now New Castle County is re-evaluating the best use for the site.


The airport is managed by the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which New Castle County officials say pays the County $1 a year under the current 30-year contract. That contract ends in 2025.

Less than a year before the county is required to tell the Authority whether it will renew or drop the lease, County Executive Matt Meyer has convened a task force to investigate the best use for the site.

He sees the airport as an asset to the county. “Nothing that the County government, that the taxpayers of this county own, is more valuable than this airport,” said Meyer. “In fact, it’s really one of the more valuable pieces of real estate in the state.”

Frontier Airlines discontinued service from the Wilmington Airport just under two years after bringing commercial flights there in July 2013. Similar efforts by Delta in 2006 and SkyBus in 2008 were also unable to get off the ground.


Meyer says all options are on the table for the task force to consider, including renewing the management contract with DRBA and pursuing commercial airline operations again. At a media event Wednesday, he also posed ideas including an e-commerce logistics hub or a pilot training center.

“Anyone who looks at the airline industry now sees that there is a huge shortage of pilots. Boeing estimates that the industry will need to train a new pilot every fifteen minutes for the next twenty years,” he said. “So over the course of this press conference that’s a couple of pilots that needed to be trained. They could have come from William Penn [High School] and been trained right across the street there.”

New Castle County Director of Economic Development Tamarra Morris Foulkes says DRBA does not pay taxes to the county. 

“Today the revenues from the Wilmington airport are shared with New Jersey,” she said in an email. “This model no longer serves the residents of New Castle County.”

Morris Foulkes said after Wednesday's press event New Castle County government will not be taking on the management of the airport itself. “Based on the recommendations, if that makes sense for a DRBA or a private management firm or a public-private partnership, or what have you— we’re looking at all the options.”

Delaware River and Bay Authority spokesman Jim Salmon said in a statement that the Authority’s goal is the same as the Meyer administration’s — to “stimulate job creation and economic growth.”

He noted DRBA assumed roughly $7 million of airport-related debt and more than $500,000 for airport-related equipment upon signing the lease with the county in 1995. He said the Authority also compensated the NCC Economic Development Corporation $250,000, invested more than $100 million in capital improvements and equipment, and secured millions in federal matching grants for the airport. He said the airport houses more than 60 corporate jet aircraft and employs 1,600 workers.


A 2018 economic impact study commissioned by DelDOT shows the airport’s total economic impact for 2017 was more than $300 million. This analysis included activity from the Army and Air National Guard units at the airport. 


The task force is chaired by Alan Levin, former secretary of the Delaware Economic Development Office and CEO of Happy Harry’s Drugstores, and composed of other business and community leaders as well as elected officials.


The task force is scheduled to start meeting this fall and present a report by April 30, 2020 with the help of a hired consultant.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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