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A Willard re-brand: C-U on the verge of becoming a travel hub

Oh, Willard Airport. I’d always thought of it as the hub for college friends from Texas to take flights home for winter break or sometimes the people that inexplicably fly to Texas for spring break. Honestly, that’s basically been my relationship with the airport for almost a decade. Typically I take a right turn and head to the golf course before I make it to the parking lot (which I hear you have to pay for).

This year, though, with proposed budget cuts by the Governor’s office, I started to pay a bit more attention to what’s actually going down at our local airfield. It’s no secret that the University is essentially keeping Willard afloat. While we’re all pretty familiar with what the struggles of Willard are (lack of transportation to and from, lack of amenities, limited destinations, etc.), the idea of having the Central Illinois hub for airline transportation has not been lost.

There’s potential on those airstrips south of Champaign. Seriously. But what’s needed to happen for quite some time is a re-organization of the leadership and structure of the business. Thankfully, the Chancellor Phyllis Wise had those same thoughts when she suggested a task force take most of 2014 to study similar markets, work to find ways to expand services, and create a new brand for Willard.

On Tuesday, I was able to attend a presentation given by Associate Chancellor Michael DeLorenzo and U of I alum Jack Penning of Sixel Consulting where they laid out a plan that was endorsed by Wise.

First, both gentlemen presented a very clean new branding campaign called Fly C-U. They’ll use Illini colors and make sure that instead of seeing Willard or Savory on flight logs, travelers will see Champaign-Urbana. Willard’s name will stay the same, nothing is changing there, but it’s building up the focal point of the community that Willard is representing. It’s a great move.

Penning presented findings that would have major implications on how we, as C-U residents, travel. Before getting into some of the nuts and bolts of the money situation, Penning made two wonderful points that I didn’t expect to hear.

First, the idea of travelers heading to Bloomington-Normal to fly because of free parking is a myth. Of local travelers lost to other airports, only 6% went to Bloomington. That’s not significant enough to suggest that paid parking is ruining Willard. In fact, Bloomington residents are actually paying for parking through property taxes. About $60 per resident goes directly towards the airport. There isn’t a portion of our local property taxes that goes towards Willard and, according to Penning, there’s not really a clamoring for local property taxes to be raised.

Second, and this is an over-arching theme for the future growth of Willard, 60% of local travelers lost to other airports leave for Indianapolis and Chicago. That in and of itself is not shocking because both of these major cities have airports with a much larger variety of destinations for travelers to go to. So, the plan is for Willard to work with air carriers on breaking in to new markets. This is where the future of travel in Champaign could forever change. If we’re looking to be a hub in Central Illinois, expanding destinations is important, and having cost prohibitive travel isn’t an option for this airport to viable. Thus, a low-cost flight to Florida might be in the works.

Imagine taking your family on vacation to Florida without having to drive two hours to O’Hare or Midway and deal with that mess, or to take a few hours and drive to Indianapolis for the same thing. Instead, you can just drive 10 minutes to Savoy and take the local airport. It’s a wonderful idea and I’m glad that Wise’s task force has this at the forefront.

Speaking of more destinations, Penning mentioned that attempting to set up flights to Dulles in Washington D.C. and Charlotte, NC are possibilities. Charlotte is a major hub for travel in the US and obviously having a connection to the DC area is huge for Champaign and the University.

There are other items that Penning and DeLorenzo discussed at length with the public, but the most important part of all of this comes down to money. The University is looking to hire an outside management company to run Willard more efficiently. The end goal is to make Willard self-sustainable which, in turn, would save the University hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Essentially, this is a win-win situation for travelers and taxpayers in town. If the strategy and recommendations are followed Champaign-Urbana will have an airport that allows for travel inexpensively to the East Coast, a business that no longer funnels money from the University, and that does not take any money from the tax payers. Those three things could lead to Willard expanding on land available in the area which would allow for more growth for local air travel.

We’re on the verge of taking a pretty large leap in local transportation and the Chancellor’s office needs to be commended by getting the ball rolling.

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