Second of two parts
Twenty years ago, Forth Worth was in a similar spot as Toledo.
Fort Worth's chief industry - the U.S. military - had left town and elected leaders were looking for another industry to support the medium-sized city on the outskirts of Dallas.
Their solution? To expand their local airport into an inland port, serving as a distribution point for much of the lower half of the United States.
Alliance, Texas, a 17,000-acre "mixed-use community" owned by Ross Perot, Jr.'s Hillwood Co., has created nearly 100,000 jobs and has generated $30 billion for the Texas economy, according to company officials.
Like Fort Worth, Toledo has a regional airport with its own airspace, but is within driving distance of a major air passenger hub - Detroit.
Like Fort Worth, Toledo is centrally located in the country and has easy rail access.
According to developer Brian McMahon, the two airports are nearly mirror images of each other. Both are near highways and rail lines.
"They had the same problem that we had. They'd lost most of their passenger business when Dallas-Forth Worth created a passenger hub, just like Detroit created a passenger hub," said Mr. McMahon, president of Danberry National, a local real estate development firm. "For all of the same reasons that the Alliance airport worked, Toledo Express can work."
Toledo Express Airport already serves as the national hub for the German air freight company BAX and Schenker.
"The airport is a prime location for air freight, usually high-value, time-sensitive cargo," said Jim Hartung, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the airport, which is owned by the city of Toledo.
Mr. McMahon's firm is a partner in a limited liability corporation which owns land around Toledo's airport.
He has long pushed for developing the land into an intermodal port - the term used by shippers to mean a transfer point for containerized freight from one form of transportation to another - but he said such a complex goes beyond his company's holdings.
"We're not just in this to see our couple hundred acres of land developed, because if that's all we do, we've collectively missed the larger opportunity," Mr. McMahon said. "We looked at the land we own as being the gateway to the turnpike."
While most imports arrive in the United States by ship, or by rail and truck from Canada and Mexico, airports are used for perishable, time-sensitive items that need to be moved fast - flowers, seafood, or computer chips.
If Toledo were to develop the regional airport as an intermodal hub, companies could fly products in, quickly load them into trucks, and then drive them to their final destination.
David Pelletier, a spokesman for Hillwood, said Alliance, Texas, grew from the close proximity of a freight airport, rail lines, and easy highway access.
"Having all of those modes of transportation together has made the development of an inland port - people refer to it as the grandfather of inland ports," Mr. Pelletier said.
"The airport is significant because companies like having the luxury of an airport nearby. If companies have to bring in goods at the last minute, or they can't get it here via train or truck, they have the luxury of being able to use the airport that's near the facility," he said.
As the Alliance hub grew, it attracted national companies that located their distribution centers nearby.
The company claims it has brought nearly 100,000 jobs to the region - 29,000 permanent jobs directly related to the transportation hub, 4,000 construction jobs, and 66,895 indirect jobs.
Toledo also has many of the same assets - as well as a nearby seaport at the port authority docks in Oregon on Lake Erie.
Mr. McMahon said creating a freight hub near the airport not only would be a profitable use of the land, but could also encourage companies to look at Toledo when looking for ways to transport their goods.
Along with its air freight business, BAX and Schenker is one of the largest freight shippers in the world. Local officials said they hope BAX might find a way to use Toledo's seaport, as well as its airport.
"Theoretically, they could be bringing that freight forward via ship, and taking it out to the airport. There's an absolute link between the two," said Matt Sapara, director of development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.
But Toledo faces a number of obstacles if it wants to copy Fort Worth's model - including competition from the south.
In the 1990s, Columbus developed the abandoned Rickenbacker Air National Guard base into a regional airport.
Today it is a successful hub of freight traffic and Columbus serves as an intermodal center for Norfolk Southern.
"You hear about Columbus being a great logistics location," Mr. Pelletier said.
Although Norfolk Southern's rail lines are close to Toledo's airport, the company has focused on using Columbus as an inland port.
The port authority's Mr. Hartung said he has pitched the western Lucas County site Mr. McMahon favors to Norfolk Southern as a potential classification and distribution facility for intermodal freight traveling to or from the West Coast.
Locating such a terminal in northwest Ohio, he said, would position it to handle cargo Norfolk Southern exchanges with western railroads in either Chicago or Kansas City, with the latter gateway offering an opportunity to bypass Chicago's notorious congestion.
"They were focused on Columbus at the time. At that time, [the West Coast] wasn't even on their radar," Mr. Hartung said, later adding, "We're going to maintain contact with NS."
Developers hope that if Toledo and its airport begin to thrive as an intermodal hub, Norfolk Southern might give it another look.
While it's satisfied with its current intermodal terminal in central Toledo, Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said the railroad would be receptive to any proposition it considers worthwhile.
"If somebody came to us with a plan to relocate our Toledo operation out to the airport and it didn't cost Norfolk Southern any money, it would be something we would look at," he said.
In order to develop the airport, local governments will also have to sink dollars into infrastructure improvements and environmental mitigations.
"There's progress being made, but it is slow. It's pretty complex stuff," Mr. Sapara said.
The Port Authority is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with wetlands on the south side of the airport, according to Mr. Sapara.
He also said the land could be developed without disturbing the nearby Oak Openings preserve.
But the improvements may not be cheap.
In Fort Worth, the city government spent more than $20 million in infrastructure improvements to expand the regional airport into an intermodal hub.
Because the land surrounding the Toledo airport includes Monclova Township and Swanton Township, as well as land owned by Toledo, joint agreements would likely be necessary to extend water lines and infrastructure to the site.
Robert Reinbolt, chief of staff to Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, said Friday the city administration is willing to extend city water to land around the airport once a tax-sharing agreement is in place with Monclova and Swanton townships and a firm development proposal is on the table.
"We're very close to an agreement" on the tax-sharing deal, known as a Joint Economic Development Zone, Mr. Reinbolt said.
"Brian's got great ideas for that," he continued. "We should be supporting it any way we can, and we will be" as soon as a specific plan comes out.
Mr. McMahon said he hoped an arrangement could be made so infrastructure expenses fall onto the property owners, not the taxpayers.
"You don't have to build a new turnpike interchange at the airport," Mr. McMahon said.
"At the end of the day we can find a way to do this, and probably minimize the impact on the taxpayers, although the taxpayers will be the long-term beneficiaries of it," he said.
Staff writer David Patch contributed to this report.
Contact Alex M. Parker at: email@example.com or 419-724-6107.