By Randy Arrington
LURAY, May 7 — The Luray Caverns Airport has undergone improvements and changes in recent years, such as the addition of 24 hangers in 2008 to the creation of the Luray-Page County Airport Authority just six years ago. But over the next six years, this regional resource could see more than $9 million in upgrades and more leaps forward than at any point in its 53-year history.
On Thursday, local officials gathered at the airport to celebrate one of the key catalysts for the growth that is coming — the opening of Aircraft Maintenance Solutions.
“That’s the true life blood of an airport — a mechanics shop,” said Powell Markowitz, who’s name has been almost synonymous with the local airport since he joined the airport commission (now the authority) in the early 1980s.
Markowitz remembers sitting down with board members around the turn of the millennium and comparing the low traffic in Luray to higher traffic at other small airports like nearby Culpeper.
“We asked ourselves, what do they have that we don’t?” Markowitz told the crowd gathered on Thursday. “The answer was a mechanics shop.”
The inclusion of a maintenance option for those who stop in Luray to fuel up or store their aircraft in local hangers has already driven up traffic at the airport since the new shop began work in January. That, in turn, sells more fuel — a key source of revenue that helps support the overall facility.
“We’re like an automotive shop, except they have wings,” owner Dale Kraus said.
The shop offers general inspections for aircrafts, as well as maintenance ranging from oil changes to replacing parts or rebuilding entire portions of the craft. In addition, Kraus is one of only “four or five” technicians in the country that is certified to work on Beach Bonanzas (a high-end general aviation craft) by the American Bonanza Society.
“We draw work from all over just due to that,” Kraus said, noting that there are only about 10,000 Beach Bonanzas in the U.S.
“He has a great reputation,” Markowitz added. “Anyone with a Beach Bonanza on the East Coast knows about him.”
Equipment was moved into the building in late December, and they began work in January. However, Kraus said when only a single plane sat under the roof, he wondered briefly, “What have we done?” But then he invested $165 in postcards that he mailed out to potential clients — that resulted in $40,000 in work, and they have “taken off” ever since.
The Page County Economic Development Authority (EDA) loaned $60,000 in seed money through Pioneer Bank to Aircraft Maintenance Solutions in order to build the structure they operate in at Luray Airport. It includes space for a half dozen (or more) aircraft, offices, a front lobby and restrooms.
“If it wasn’t for that seed money, we probably wouldn’t have come here,” Kraus said, adding that there was another small airport they were looking at. “Now, my wife wants to build a house here.”
Kraus currently lives in Mathias, W.Va. and operates the Luray maintenance shop with his son, Stephan. He operated a Fixed Base Operation (FBO) repair station for aircraft in Florida for 25 years, and first came to the region about 15 years ago when he opened a preflight repair shop in Mount Sidney (Augusta Co.).
“We’re not new to the business,” Kraus told Thursday’s crowd.
The Luray site also brought technician Matt Queen on board, who provides elevate avionics maintenance and repair, as well as an apprentice trying to become a certified airplane mechanic. They are currently looking to hire an installer. The EDA loan required that the shop add two additional employees within two years.
“We get people coming in from everywhere…they go out to eat, sometimes they stay a night, they buy fuel, sometimes they talk about coming back to visit…this is going to have a trickle down affect into the community, and maybe more economic impact that you might think,” Kraus said. “It’s going to spread money out through the entire community.”
The addition of a successful mechanics shop at the airport has elevated its position as an economic engine for the county.
“Having an airport makes us more noticeable,” Page County’s newly hired director of economic development Nina Long Fox said on Thursday. “It’s a great advantage for economic development in the community.”
First built in 1969, the Luray Airport covered just 49 acres on land donated by Ted Graves. Today, it spreads out over more than 100 aces. Over the next six years, the site will see more than $9 million in improvements paid for “mostly through grants provided by the state and the [Federal Aviation Administration],” according to Markowitz. The key projects earmarked for those funds include:
- Adding 18 T-hanger units;
- Construction of a fuel farm (storage and fueling station);
- Erecting a new terminal building;
- Extending the runway to 4,400 feet (allowing for more aircraft);
- Construction of a parallel taxi way.
Getting a maintenance shop on site and the addition of hangers in 2008 have strengthened the local airport’s position to secure additional government funding. The $1.4 million secured from the USDA in 2008 to construct two buildings containing 24 hangers has been paid for through the rental of those units. The airport will apply to the USDA to refinance the remaining debt on the hangers to take advantage of low interest rates. Markowitz said a decision should be rendered within six months. The original loan was set up over 40 years.
As local officials toured the new building on Thursday, they also got a close-up view of some of the aircrafts being stored at the site. One had arrived after a three-hour trip from the Florida Keys; another after a two-hour flight from Chicago. Markowitz noted that a flight to Chicago could be as short as 90 minutes without a head wind.
“It shrinks the world,” he said.
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