By Andrea Rumbaugh / Houston Chronicle
September 22, 2016
CONROE – International corporate travelers in fast-growing Montgomery County will save time and money with the opening of a Customs and Border Protection facility at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport.
The nearly $3.2 million inspection station will allow authorized fliers returning home from many countries to fly here directly. Previously, they had to stop at another airport to clear Customs, then reboard for the final leg, adding time and expense.
Officials said during a grand opening tour Thursday that the facility will benefit existing corporate clients in the area and could help lure new businesses.
Many executives won’t even entertain the idea of bringing their corporate jets to airports that lack Customs, said Gil Staley, CEO of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership.
It’s a new tool for recruiting companies to The Woodlands, and it could help the region compete with similarly qualified areas that also have the inspection facilities, such as Sugar Land.
“It would only enhance their decision,” Staley said. “We look for every opportunity to be competitive.”
In one recent 18-month period, 165 planes landed at other airports to clear Customs before proceeding to Conroe-North Houston, known before last year as Lone Star Executive Airport. Airport Director Scott Smith said the demand will only grow as the region continues to develop.
“What comes with economic development is aviation,” he said. “Always does.”
The 3,300-square-foot facility was funded by a public-private partnership. It has a full-time Customs officer from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Arrivals mostly come from Mexico, Central America and Canada.
It is the latest of several airport expansion projects. In 2009, Conroe-North Houston opened an air traffic control tower. Last year, it extended its runway from 6,000 feet to 7,501 feet.
The moves were spurred by economic as well as population growth.
The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, which tracks organizations with more than 100 employees, reported the number of major employers in the area has grown to 65 organizations employing 32,508 people this year.
In 2007, there were 44 organizations employing 19,624 people.
Montgomery County’s population grew 18 percent to 537,559 residents in 2015, up from 455,764 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It added 2,547 new businesses overall between the first three months of 2006 and the same period in 2016.
The number of people working in the county grew to 166,000 during that period from 106,000, said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, citing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
Jankowski said the Customs facility “helps reduce a hassle factor” for corporate travelers.
Charles Perez, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s area port director for Houston airports, called it a “jewel in your back pocket.”
Smith said the facility was funded by many entities: Assets management firm Black Forest Ventures provided $600,000 and an airplane parking area it had previously built, Conroe Industrial Development Corp. provided $750,000, The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership provided $50,000 for IT equipment, the Shenandoah Municipal Development District provided $25,000 for IT equipment and Montgomery County paid for the rest.
“Even though it’s not in The Woodlands boundaries, it’s still our community’s airport,” Staley said.