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The Transformation of Waukesha County Airport/Crites Field

From cow pasture to economic driver for the region.

Driving by the big expanse of open land on Pewaukee Road, it’s easy to forget Waukesha is home to an industrious airport, unless there is a plane landing over ahead.

But Waukesha County Airport/Crites Field is the third busiest airport in the state. In 2009, nearly 60,000 takeoffs and landings were recorded at the airport, according to information about the airport from the county website.

The airport is named after brothers Dean and Dale Crites, aviation enthusiasts who were instrumental in convincing the Waukesha County Board to build an airport.

In 1933, the Crites brothers took county board members for plane rides to introduce them to aviation. The county board must have been impressed: In 1935, the airport opened for business with three grass runways on land that used to be cow pastures.

Make no mistake, though. The 500-plus acre airport isn’t cow pasture anymore but rather an economic driver for the region, according to a 2009 economic impact study.

Highlights from the study found that the airport:

  • Provided nearly $81 million in economic output, supported 992 jobs and contributed $24.2 million in wage income to the Waukesha County economy in 2008-2009 considering all direct, indirect and induced impacts;
  • Had a direct impact of over $42 million in sales, over $10 million in wage income and supported 281 jobs, an increase of $7.8 million in sales, $3.2 million in wage income and 80 more jobs since an economic impact study in 2002; and
  • Generated over $943,000 in revenues for Waukesha County and over $172,000 for the State of Wisconsin.

According to the county website, “nearly half of the airport’s 195 small aircraft owners use their airplanes for both business and recreational purposes. And more than 50 local businesses use the airport to transport staff to meet with customers and branch offices.”

Some of the different businesses and services that operate out of the Waukesha County Airport include Flight for Life, two flight schools, aircraft and avionics maintenance businesses, charter flights, hangar sales and rentals, aircraft sales and three aviation organizations, the Waukesha Aviation Club, the Civil Air Patrol and the Wisconsin wing of the Commemorative Air Force.

One reason for the airport’s success is that it’s located in a perfect area for business, according to operations manager Kurt Stanich.

“People love the location. They can fly in and in 10 minutes be on the expressway to Milwaukee or Madison,” Stanich said.

Seventy-five percent of the airport’s business is general aviation but majority of its money comes from corporate usage, according to Stanich.

General aviation is all flights other than military and scheduled airline and cargo flights. General aviation ranges from gliders, helicopters and to larger, non-scheduled jet flights.

The airport has a wide variety of aircraft, thanks to a diverse community population, according to Stanich.

“On the weekend, you’ll see the corporate executive who flies and also the guy who tinkers, all here together,” he said.

Another reason for the airport’s popularity is the number of different services it offers: radio, jet and small aircraft maintenance, a fixed-base operator which provides services to pilots like refueling, a radar-controlled tower, and a larger runway than other nearby general aviation airports.

Financially, the airport is doing fairly well despite a couple of “tough budget years,” with revenue staying steady, Stanich said. The majority of the airport's revenue comes from hangar land leases and fuel sales.

The airport is steadily working toward becoming self-sufficient and reducing its reliance on the county. Over the past 10 years, the airport has reduced the amount it relies on the county by almost half, according to Stanich.

Last year, the airport celebrated its 75th anniversary. And while the history of the airport is notable, its future could be just as remarkable.

Stanich, who “kind of grew up around the airport” because of a grandmother who was in the Civil Air Patrol and a grandfather who flew for the Army Air Corps, shared some plans for its immediate and long-term future.

“We’re going to continue to grow. It’s important for us to continue to grow, to be creative and innovative about how we do business,” he said.

He’s not worried about the airport needing more land or space, since the trend is toward smaller, lighter and quieter aircraft, but they will be growing by developing more hangar space and building up the aviation community. There are also plans to add a runway extension for a safety buffer.

“The airport is place for the community, to learn and try new things,” Stanich said. “It connects the community to other communities, quickly and efficiently.”

The airport holds a number of different events throughout the year to encourage community participation. One event, Wings Over Waukesha, is an aviation exposition and air show featuring a variety of contemporary and vintage aircraft from both civilian and military aviation.

Scheduled for Aug. 27 and 28, the family-friendly event provides an opportunity to learn about flying, aircraft and the important role of military aviation, while meeting local pilots and getting a close-up view of their aircraft.

Stanich is also excited about some new trends in city planning, having just attended a conference in Milwaukee about the concept of an “aerotropolis,” where all major transportation centers around an airport to better serve and connect businesses and communities.

Aviation, when compared to other modes of transportation, “offers an economic engine you don’t see with other types of transportation,” he said.

And general aviation airports like the Waukesha County Airport “open up a whole new area of possibility for people who do fly,” Stanich said.

There are almost 600 airports in United States but ten times the amount of general aviation airports like the Waukesha County Airport, nearly 6,000, he said.

Michael A. Crowley July 01, 2011 at 11:29 AM
Very nicely written article, Amy! Great things ahead for a gem of an airport!

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