Marion Chamber announces 2017 Business/Industry of the Year

The Marion Chamber of Commerce has announced that the 2017 Business/Industry of the Year is Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois.
“Being recognized by your peers is a humbling experience. But it also makes us proud to be a part of the miracle that is Marion,” said Airport Authority Board Chairman Bernard Paul. “Growth is all around us, and we are excited to be a part of it. Thanks to the Chamber for everything it has done, and continues to do, to keep the spirit of expansion alive and thriving.”
Doug Kimmel, director of Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois, said that the award is a “wonderful testament to the hard work and commitments that are put forth on a daily basis in providing the airport facilities and services that accommodate the public and measurably add to the economy of our region.”
“This includes the work of airport employees, airline staff, TSA personnel, rental car operations, FBO personnel, flight training operations, CAP squadron, ATC and FAA staff, Fire Protection District personnel, Sherriff’s Department, and numerous businesses located throughout the Airport Business Park,” he said. “Together our activity accounts for over $22 million in annual economic impact to the region, and most importantly provides a transportation portal to the world economy. It was once said that to measure the heartbeat of a community take its pulse at the airport. Thanks to our work now, and to so many that have come before us, our pulse continues to beat strong for all of southern Illinois.”
The Marion Area Chamber of Commerce will present the award to Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois at the 97th annual Awards Banquet & Auction on Friday, Jan. 19 at The Pavilion. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. Tickets to attend are $60/person or $400/table (seats 8) and are available by calling the Marion Chamber of Commerce at 618.997.6311, visiting or emailing
“More than 400 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature a social hour, silent auction, wine/spirit pull, Diamond Drop, great food and networking, all centered around honoring our award winners, especially the Business/Industry of the Year winner – Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois,” said Dalus Ben Avi, executive director of the Marion Chamber of Commerce. “I look forward to honoring Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois not only because of the wonderful support they give to the Chamber, but also to the region as a whole. Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois is the perfect example of business and professional people working together to build a healthy economy and to improve the quality of life in our community, which is the Marion Chamber’s mission. It is our honor to celebrate Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois, their accomplishments, their future and all they bring to our area.”
"Essential." That's the term best used to describe Veterans Airport. With its 8000-foot runway and sophisticated electronic landing systems, today's Veterans Airport certainly lives up to its federal designation as an "Essential Air Service" airport. It is the largest Illinois airport serving air carriers south of Springfield. More than 235,000 people live and work within 35 miles of the airport and can depend upon it for their transportation connections to St. Louis and the world. The airport's growth has been a long story of hard work and dedication by a handful of far-sighted leaders.
Back in 1926, when stunt pilot and barnstormer Charles "Slim" Lindbergh flew his biplane out of a grassy field over by Carterville, airports were unknown. Any level spot where an aviator could set his craft down was about the best he could hope for. But in 1930, Marion's aviation pioneer, Fred Valentin, opened his 100-acre landing field east of Marion. Marion Airport, as it was known, had three cinder-surfaced runways arranged in a triangular pattern. The hanger and airport office were located in a former bus garage along old Route 13 East, where Fabick Machinery Co. now stands. Valentin trained an estimated 1500 pilots during his years in the business. Many of those aviators went into the military at the start of World War II, including Capt. Robert Duncan, holder of the Navy Cross, and a Hellcat ace of the South Pacific. The airline terminal at today's Airport is named in honor of Captain Duncan.
After the war, returning veterans used their G.I. Bill entitlements to get their pilot licenses. Pilots who had been trained to fly in the military kept up their aviation skills, too, and both groups bought Pipers and Cessnas in record numbers. Fred Valentin had the foresight to take his flying service to a larger field west of Marion and south of Energy. He named the new runway "Macarin Field," using the combined names of Marion, Carterville and Herrin. The wisdom of this move was made manifest a few years later when a modern four-lane Route 13 was relocated along the south end of the airport, and Interstate 57 was constructed just east of the field. Nothing could have made the airport more centralized and convenient for residents of Williamson County and Southern Illinois.
“When I started hanging around this patch of grass back in the 1950s, our terminal was just the wooden office room attached to the side of the big barn-like wooden hangar where Fred Valentine operated the Macarin Airport,” Paul said. “There were two perpendicular paved runways, with a third, longer sod runway connecting the far ends of the two hard surfaces. It was from that grass strip that I took my first airplane ride in 1954. That flight inspired me to follow a career in the U.S. Air Force which took me all over the world.”
In 1948, Mr. Valentin sold his Macarin airport to the Veterans Airport Authority. A referendum had voted for the establishment of the Authority, passing unanimously in all townships of Williamson County except Stonefort. The Airport Board today consists of six members appointed by the leaders of the cities over 5000 population and by the County Board of Commissioners.
With the support of the people of Williamson County, the Airport's growth has been constant and spectacular. The Veterans Airport now covers more than 1300 acres. Many improvements have taken place. Additional runways have been added, then lengthened and widened, then heavily re-paved. In 1953 Ozark Airlines began passenger service from Marion to St. Louis and other major hub airports. After Ozark, other airlines, including Britt Airways, Air Midwest, Northwest Airlink, Trans World Express, American Connection, Mesa Airlines, and Geat Lakes Airline, have provided continuous scheduled airline service for our area. The current airline that serves our area is Cape Air with daily flights to and from St. Louis.
“In a few years, with the coming of Ozark Airlines, we were able to erect a small tan brick terminal building for passengers on those DC-3s. The east half of the big open room was a sandwich shop where that made great hamburgers for passengers and for families when they brought the kids out to watch the airplanes. The other half of the building was the ticket counter and waiting area for Ozark Airline and for Hertz car rentals,” Paul said. “Ozark employees would help the boarding passengers haul their suitcases out to the waiting aircraft, and then take away the ladder when the door was ready to close. No fences, no searches, no x-ray machines. No TSA. But we were becoming world travelers.”
An F.A.A.-approved Air Traffic Control tower and a new terminal building were built, and an industrial park and a National Guard Armory were located adjacent to the Airport. A new corporate hanger and additional T-hangers have been constructed. Ample taxiways and ramps augment the two hard-surfaced all-weather runways. Today, with the arrival of distribution Aisin's auto parts plant and the tertiary care Heartland Medical Center, all located within a stone's throw of the Airport, new business and professional construction is evident all around the field. Land in the Airport's business center, and in tracts adjoining it, is leasing at premium prices. Aeroflite, the old fixed base operator at the Airport, provided flight instruction, aviation maintenance, charter service and fuels for almost 50 years. Charles C. Stoker ran Aeroflite and also served as Airport Manager from 1957 until his retirement in 1998. In 2004, more than 290,000 gallons of aviation fuel were pumped into thirsty airplanes at the Airport. Air express company planes regularly depart the Airport, carrying packages and overnight correspondence to every part of the country. In 2004 one air express company alone off-loaded more than a million pounds of air freight at the airport, and sent out yet another half-a-million pounds from here. Midwest Aviation currently serves as the airport's fixed base operator providing the same services.
Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and both Bushes have visited the Airport, as well as many State and National officers and candidates for public office. The heaviest concentration of aircraft was during one period of President Ford's visit when "Air Force One," three C-141 cargo jets and 42 visiting corporate and civilian aircraft were all on the field. The Airport terminal is a favored spot for "whistle- stop" political speeches and public announcements by incumbents. Numerous entertainers and sports teams on their way to venues around Southern Illinois first fly in to Williamson County because of our long runways.
“In the following years, the Airport Authority was able to build the larger red brick terminal, which stood for so many years. It served us well, but is now just a memory. We have lengthened our runways, and erected a modern control tower. Our electronic navaids are first quality,” Paul said. “Cape Air provides regular, safe and convenient air service to St. Louis daily. And now we have a magnificent terminal to cap off the development of this, a Regional airport for all of Southern Illinois. The whole world awaits us and our children and our children’s children. We have a superb airport. We have a date with the future.”
The Business/Industry of the Year Award winner was selected by the members of the Marion Chamber of Commerce Awards Committee, including the Mayor of the City of Marion Robert Butler, Gail Barger with Priority Staffing Group Ltd., Dalus Ben Avi with the Marion Chamber of Commerce, Kristin Beutel with the Marion Chamber of Commerce, Ashlee Church with Volkswagen of Marion, Misty Cobb with Banterra Bank, Dana Dooley with HireLevel powered by Extra Help, Kenya Garner with State Farm Insurance, Cindy Gibbons with U.S. Bank, Ashley Gott with Bank of Herrin, Janet Jensen with Auto Credit of Southern Illinois, Doug Kimmel with Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois, Brian McHugh with BNI STAR Chapter, Bill Nielsen with Flanders Electric, Sara Perdue with Harbory Medical Cannabis Dispensary, Christy Pulliam with StaffQuick, Mindy Reid with Banterra Bank, Rick Richert with Flanders Electric and Kimberly Walker with Kemper CPA Group LLP.
The first Business/Industry of the Year Award was given in 1963 to GTE. Last year’s recipient was Hospice of Southern Illinois. Past winners of the Business/Industry of the Year Award can be viewed at