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LONG-TERM GOALS, ANTICIPATING EXPANSION AT
COTULLA – LA SALLE COUNTY AIRPORT
When it first opened in 1947, the municipal airfield at Cotulla was little more than a grassy strip on which the occasional military training flight would land.
Today, the county airport ranks as the largest between Laredo and San Antonio, with a brand-new terminal building and a runway capable of handling large Gulfstream and Learjet aircraft.
At just over 6,000 feet, the runway and its full-length taxiway, even the airport apron and terminal area, are large enough to receive medium-sized commercial passenger jets.
The east-west runway is nearly twice as long as its predecessor, but a second airstrip running from southeast to northwest was abandoned decades ago and is now only discernible by boundary markers that jut diagonally from the edges of the present property.
Today’s Cotulla – La Salle County Airport and its Cotulla Jet Center terminal business (formerly Page Aviation) are a far cry from those early and dusty days.
Had it not been for a vision of La Salle County’s potential growth in the 21st century, the airfield that survived into the early 1980s might have closed long ago, the land reverted to agri-business, and Cotulla being without a vital gateway to the Brush Country, the energy industry and the lucrative IH-35 trade corridor.
Business owner, airport manager and visionary ET Page hosted an informal conference in the new terminal Thursday evening, September 29, alongside representatives of Coffman Associates, responsible for a long-term plan for the airport that includes an even longer runway with wider access ramps and taxiways, a larger aircraft apron, more hangars, and the capability of handling far more air traffic than it does today.
The price tag runs into the millions.
Page is undeterred by the final cost of the improvements because, as has been shown in the past ten years, almost all of the expansion and updates to bring the airport to the status it holds today have been subsidized by the government, notably the Aviation Division of the Texas Department of Transportation. The agency named Cotulla its Airport of the Year in 2016.
Additionally, Page doesn’t expect new construction to take place all at once. Expansion will be undertaken in stages, he said Thursday, based on demand and fund availability.
Chandra Burks, representing Coffman Associates, demonstrated plans at the conference for the larger county airport as it may appear in about fifteen or twenty years’ time. Both Burks and Page acknowledged that the energy industry development over the Eagle Ford Shale and the further growth of Laredo as one of the nation’s busiest inland ports have already delivered the demand for a bigger airport.
“We are seeing big Gulfstream jets coming in here more frequently now,” Page said. “These are large, multi-passenger aircraft. They are owned by businessmen and developers who are now active in South Texas.”
One of the problems pilots face when landing at Cotulla today is the narrow access ramps between the runway and the taxiway. Turning onto those ramps in a large jet requires careful maneuvers, lest a portion of the undercarriage run into the grassy verge.
The problem is not due to a design flaw. Taxi- and access ways that were mapped out only a decade ago are now proving too small for the aircraft that have begun using them.
“We also have more hunters coming in by air,” Page said. “They’re flying in from distant cities, and that means they’re wanting fuel and space to park their aircraft while they’re here.”
Burks said one of the long-term goals for the county airport is a further runway extension to over 7,000 feet, a length that would render the facility capable of handling large commercial jets, thereby serving as a relief airport for Laredo and as a freight terminal.
Today’s 6,000-foot runway, however, combined with dedicated airspace beyond each end of the pavement, is effectively constrained by IH-35 to the west and Hwy 97 to the east. Building a longer runway, Burks said, will require all-new construction hundreds of feet to the north. Today’s runway would then be converted to a taxiway.
Page agrees the plan represents a vision leaps and bounds ahead of today’s facility.
“What we’re talking about, for maybe twenty years into the future, is a facility that will serve the region in ways that a lot of people can’t imagine today,” the airport manager said. “There are people who live here in Cotulla who don’t even know we have an airport.
“Well, I think that’s going to change,” Page said. “I think air traffic and airport capability will have to meet the demand. If we can’t move forward, the potential for other development in La Salle County dries up as well. Businesses looking to come here are going to be attracted by the airport capability, and if we can’t meet their demands and expectations, they’re going to look elsewhere.”
It is the line of thinking in economic development for the county matching that of the city of Cotulla and the La Salle County governments. Both have recently taken steps towards meeting demand and catering to future growth. The city built a new water tower this year that will supply homes east of downtown and neighborhoods yet to be built; the county paid for a four-lane truck bypass route between IH-35 and Hwy 97 that has opened vast tracts of previously inaccessible real estate. Residential properties and commercial enterprises are expected in the area, according to La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez and Cotulla Mayor Javier Garcia.
The airport plays a key role in all of those plans.
“If we are going to attract the kind of development that fuels the economy, and then serve its needs once business is established and growth underway, we have to keep moving forward,” Page said. “We have the new terminal building; we have a larger aircraft storage capacity. We have improved services. What we are doing now is demonstrating where we will be in twenty years’ time, and laying out a plan for reaching that goal.”
Workshops, committee meetings, mapping, goal setting and prioritizing have gone through three stages with Coffman Associates, and Page said he believes planning has now reached the point at which the draft report goes to approval.
“Having a plan in place, with everything from the environmental overview to the height hazard study and the capital program, means we have a blueprint for the future that is workable, can be presented in the fund applications and not only shows where we expect to be but how we are going to get there,” Page said.
The airport manager recalls the days of Cotulla’s municipal airfield and the vision that set in motion a redevelopment that catered to the new demands of the late 1980s and foresaw a time when the facility would attract new business and become an integral part of the economic development machine.
“You know, that first plan was drawn out on a napkin,” Page laughs at the oblique reference to the creation of Southwest Airlines, similarly conceived. “Yes, this is ambitious, but so was that napkin.”