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updated: 2/18/2013 5:18 AM

Wheaton resident takes charge of DuPage airport board

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  • Stephen Davis, the new chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority Board, is no stranger to efforts to improve the facility in West Chicago.

      Stephen Davis, the new chairman of the DuPage Airport Authority Board, is no stranger to efforts to improve the facility in West Chicago.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer


Stephen Davis is no stranger to efforts to improve the DuPage Airport and reduce or eliminate its reliance on property taxes.

The 55-year-old Wheaton man already has served nearly nine years on the airport authority board. During that time, he agreed with former board Chairman Dan Goodwin's push to have the West Chicago airport run like a business.

And now that he's chairman of the authority board, Davis said he has no plans to change course.

"My goal is to continue the reforms and the changes that have happened over the past nine years," he said.

Davis was chosen by fellow board members to replace Goodwin, who stepped down as chairman Jan. 31. "I won't try to fill his shoes," Davis said. "I will watch over his shoes."

Over the decade Goodwin was chairman, the authority board slashed the airport's property tax levy from about $18 million in 2003 to $5.9 million. Last year, the owner of a $250,000 house paid about $13 in property taxes to the airport.

Davis said he wants to make sure the board spends taxpayers' money wisely.

"We have been entrusted as stewards over the management of this airport," he said. "Running this like a business is in the best interest of the taxpayer."

The president of the Will Group, Davis was appointed to the authority board in March 2004 by former county board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom. The panel has since implemented a variety of reforms, including the removal of political influence over the airport.

"The employees we hire are based on qualifications through an open process," said David Bird, the authority's executive director. "All the vendors are awarded contracts as the result of a fair, open and transparent process -- and not because they know a particular person."

Still, there have been financial challenges caused by the economic downturn and a contraction in business aviation. DuPage Airport relies on fuel sales, and land and building leases to pay for its operation.

But the authority has been able to set aside all the tax money it collects to pay for improvements to the airport, including a current renovation of the flight center and a planned $9 million widening of the primary runway.

The airport is debt-free and has an infrastructure capable of accommodating future growth in aviation, Bird said.

"We've got a very good business model that's built around corporate aviation and the corporate customer," he said.

Davis says he's believes the airport is "poised for great things" once the economy improves.

"We want to see hangars," Davis said. "We want new tenants. We want to make sure our tenants are successful. And we want as many aircraft as we could possibly get because that helps our fuel sales."

There's already been a turnaround of one of the airport's related activities. Prairie Landing Golf Club, which had some rough years, made a profit of about $138,000 last year.

The biggest development challenges facing the authority board is filling the nearly vacant DuPage Business Center. The 800-acre site, just south of the airport, is struggling to attract tenants.

"It's been a bit frustrating," Davis said, "but we haven't given up. We're not going to give up."

When asked about the site, Goodwin said initial attempts to develop it were hampered by a desire that it become a technology park.

"The tech park was not an invention of the airport," Goodwin said. "The tech park was imposed on the airport by elected officials."

While a $34 million state grant was spent on infrastructure, the site had none of the elements that would normally accompany a technology park, according to Goodwin. The property, for example, isn't close to an expressway.

"So it was pretty well doomed to failure," Goodwin said. "And when the recession came, that was it."

The authority board responded by relaxing development restrictions on the site's 450 buildable acres to allow for more potential uses, including light manufacturing.

Airport officials also got permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to sell land at the business park to users who would rather own -- and not lease -- their parcels.

Still, Davis said, the business park continues to have an accessibility problem.

"If there was a highway off I-88 that went right past us, I think it would help the development tremendously," Davis said. "It also would benefit the airport."

With that in mind, Davis said he would like to resurrect discussion of extending Eola Road.

DuPage officials said a proposal to extend Eola through Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Batavia was dropped about a decade ago after the idea failed to gain support from Fermilab and federal highway officials.

But with the 2009 opening of the Eola interchange at I-88 in Aurora, Davis said he believes the idea of extending Eola should be revisited.

"As chair of the board, it's the kind of thing that I will mention during every conversation," Davis said. "I just think that it's critical."

In the meantime, Davis has just one year left on his current term. County board Chairman Dan Cronin must decide if he will reappoint him.

"Whatever happens, happens," Davis said. "I will continue the work on behalf of the taxpayers until someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me I'm done."

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