Lost Nation Airport Boosts Income with Community Sports Park

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

Lost Nation Municipal Airport (LNN), a reliever for Cleveland Hopkins International, has an unusual business as its major tenant. It's not a corporate flight department or aircraft maintenance shop, but rather a family sports and recreation facility, complete with basketball courts, indoor soccer fields, batting cages and lots of other facilities designed for fun. 

LNN developed the Lost Nation Sports Park by repurposing a 75,000-square-foot hangar on the far northwestern corner that stood empty for years. Now, the facility generates $83,000 in rent for the small airport, and has become an integral part of its local community, Willoughby, OH. 

Community Sports Park
Location: Lost Nation Municipal Airport (Willoughby, OH)
Annual Aircraft Operations: 46,000
Airport Owner: Lake County Ohio Port & Economic Development Authority
Strategy: Convert empty hangar into revenue-generating sports facility
Hangar Size: 75,000 sq. ft. 
Name of Business: Lost Nation Sports Park
Sports Offered: Flag football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball, indoor golf, Zumba classes
Annual Rent: $83,000

The facility is open year-round, and offers both indoor and outdoor courts and fields. Programs for adults include flag football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball, indoor golf and Zumba classes. Children play basketball, baseball, flag football, soccer and other activities. The airport facility even includes a full-service restaurant/bar.

Securing a major tenant such as the sports park was a godsend for LNN, comments Airport Manager Patty Fulop. "The hangar was built in 1992 as an aircraft repair facility, and Cleveland Jet was the major tenant. They worked on Gulfstream, Lear and CitationJets," she chronicles. "But Gulfstream decided to take its repair business in-house, and it left Cleveland Jet with a void from which they could not recover. That was a major hit for us; the hangar was empty for several years."

That's when Mike Srsen, a local businessman and former treasurer of the Cleveland Browns, approached airport officials about developing an indoor sports recreation facility that could be used year-round by local residents. Encouraged by their response, he pitched his idea to the city of Willoughby, which owned the airport at the time.

"I was willing to finance the deal myself, along with my partner, Patrick Parker [former chairman and chief executive officer of Parker Hannifin]. I thought it would be easy to get approval, since the hangar was empty, and they were not getting any money from it," Srsen recalls.

Several challenges lay ahead, however. "City officials liked the idea, but told us we needed FAA approval, since the hangar had a conditional use permit, which was just for airport repairs," he explains. 

Mr. Srsen Goes to Washington
To move his sports complex idea off the dime, Srsen traveled to Detroit to meet with officials at the FAA Field Office, and also to Washington, D.C., to meet with Steven LaTourette, the region's congressman at the time. "Steve was very supportive, especially when we told him we would invest $2 million of our own money, and no government funds would be needed," Srsen recalls of the recently deceased legislator. "What is not to like?"

One of the congressman's most helpful contributions was warning the entrepreneurs about likely bureaucratic delays. "Steve was instrumental in going through the step-by-step process, and warned us that the government moves at its own pace," Srsen recalls. "Unfortunately, that turned out to be true."

After two years navigating the permit process, Srsen got FAA approval, and Lost Nation Sports Park opened in 1998.

The building has two full-length basketball courts, which also double as volleyball courts. An artificial turf field is used for soccer, lacrosse and flag football. There also are several indoor batting cages. In 2002, the owners expanded outdoors by adding six full-sized soccer fields-a project that required new drainage pipes for the 13-acre parcel. 

These days, the sports park is a significant part of the community, remarks Srsen. "Besides all of our sports leagues, we also have a full-service restaurant and bar. So many people come here just to dine and socialize."

And the business continues to grow. "We now have 10 full-time employees, plus 50 other part-time employees," he reports. "It is very satisfying that thousands of people use this facility throughout the year."

In fact, the facility at LNN has been so successful that Srsen recently opened a similar recreational park in Lorain, OH, a western suburb of Cleveland.  

Growing the Field
From the airport's perspective, Lost Nation Sports Park is a valuable tenant that pays  $83,000 per year in rent-LNN's largest single source of income, notes Fulop. "We own two large hangars, and five others are owned by individuals. However, we have long-term land leases with all of our hangar tenants, including Lost Nation Sports Park," she elaborates. 

Classic Jet Center rents the two airport-owned hangars and runs its fixed-base operation. It also provides the airport with maintenance services such as mowing and snow plowing. 

Lately, Fulop is noticing a change in the mix of aircraft flying in and out of LNN. "We are seeing an uptick in our corporate jet business," Fulop reports. 

The Lake County Ohio Port and Economic Development Authority, which took over airport operations in October 2014, expects that growth to continue and increase. Mark Rantala, the authority's executive director, considers LNN an underserved airport with a bright future. "Lake County has 230,000 people. Mentor has 50,000, and Willoughby has 30,000. So a third of the county population is right here, and the airport is right in the middle of the two," he says.  

In addition, Rantala emphasizes that Lake County has 900 manufacturers, and most are located just one mile from LNN. "Many executives like to fly in and out of our airport," he comments. "We are now receiving FAA money for airport improvements, as well as funds from the Ohio Department of Transportation. 

"We renovated both airport runways, and added automated weather observation systems. We are selling more fuel, and we anticipate adding more T-hangars. There is room on the property to do that, and there is a demand for hangar space. We are aggressively looking to get that done," he adds.

Recent and future improvements notwithstanding, Rantala acknowledges what a unique and important role Lost Nation Sports Park played in helping keep the airport afloat during lean times a few years ago: "[It] is a very valuable county resource, especially as a recreational facility for adults as well as children. They have been a wonderful tenant for us." 

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