As the recession began to take hold, the red-hot real estate market around the Chandler Airport went into such a free-fall that the city’s economic development team did the unthinkable.

Officials called property owners who were about to build new projects and advised them to hold off, fearing the area would be stuck with empty buildings otherwise.

Virtually nothing happened around the airport for years.

Now, the city is confident this is the year development will take off around the airport. Chandler expects several significant announcements in 2012 around the airport, which is one of the city’s largest employment centers.

The long pause in development had some upside, said Christine Mackay, the city’s economic development director. The vacancy rate around the airport didn’t jump during the recession because there wasn’t a glut of new buildings that opened as the recession deepened. By comparison, Mackay said the office vacancy rate by the Scottsdale Airpark had skyrocketed to 47 percent at one point.

“The advantage of the economy tipping when it did, it really gave us a chance to take a breath around this airpark area,” she said. “This is our last frontier.”

Chandler refined plans for the 9-square-mile airpark area to maximize its potential to attract employers, Mackay said.

Chandler has reserved city-owned land around the airport for aviation-related businesses, and it will only lease that property to maintain control. Also, it will allow three private property owners through-the-fence access so select businesses can have access to the runway. Very few airports do that, which she said helps set the airport apart.

The airport has become more attractive to development recently with the completion of roads around the airport and new infrastructure around the field.

And last year, the city brought the airport under the economic development division to increase business development efforts. Mackay expects to announce a new development within a couple months and anticipates seeing several new projects within a couple years. The overall improvement in the economy is playing a role, but other factors are at play.

“Arguably, aviation was hit harder than any other sector in this country, and it will take the longest to recover,” Mackay said.

One milestone the airport is working on is a fixed-base operator, which provides concierge services including fuel, food and a lounge. The airport probably needs to grow a little more to attract an FBO, but Mackay said landing one will help the airport lure more executive travel.

“If we could get a significant FBO, it would elevate the standing of the airport more than just about anything we could do,” she said.

The airport now focuses on personal aircraft owners, corporate travel and flight training. For the airpark, the city is focusing on aviation services, financial services, biotechnology, warehouse/distribution and manufacturing. Chandler is marketing the airport as an alternative to corporate executives who can save time by avoiding the security, lines and big parking lots that slow them down at major airports, said airport administrator Lori Quan.

“Ultimately, this will be a great mover of those customers who really need to maximize their time,” she said.

When the 9-mile zone around the airport is fully developed in 2035-2040, Chandler expects 28 million square feet of commercial, industrial and retail space. There is less than 10 million square feet today.

The airport’s runway brings some limitations. At 4,870 feet, it’s slightly shorter than Mesa’s Falcon Field and less than half the length of the runway at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. About the largest plane the runway can handle is a 16-passenger jet, Mackay said.

Gateway’s facilities have resulted in it attracting a flurry of development recently. Allegiant and Spirit Airlines have expanded rapidly and are on track to serve 1 million passengers a year.

Chandler’s airport is the 70th-largest in the nation.

The airpark area is becoming more attractive to development with the improving economy because it has some of the last patches of vacant land. The airpark itself has three parcels of 100 acres or more — as many as in the rest of the city combined. Several airpark owners already have plans approved for major developments. They include a 76-acre parcel of future office and light industrial that’s owned by the Rockefeller Group, the company of the famed Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Rockefeller probably will be among the first to begin construction, Mackay said.

Developers had once considered the airport too remote to become anything but a quaint airfield, but Mackay said that’s changed as major companies have transformed cornfields into corporate offices.

“It’s really this airport’s turn to turn into a major employment hub,” Mackay said. “And it’s this airport’s turn to be recognized for being a major employment hub.”

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