Can a $1 billion airport terminal help Sacramento make a better first impression?
Well, it can't hurt.
It might even help the economy a little.
On Thursday, after more than three years of construction, Sacramento International Airport will unveil its new Central Terminal B, an aviation palace that's bigger than the current Terminals A and B combined and the largest public works project in Sacramento history.
Area business leaders say the new terminal, which replaces one built nearly 45 years ago, could improve how travelers perceive the region. Sacramentans might be persuaded to use their airport more often, instead of flying out of the Bay Area. Airlines could add flights and new destinations.
And business executives particularly those scouting Sacramento as a location for a new factory or office could see the region in a more favorable light. John Boyd, a New Jersey consultant who advises corporations on site selection, said those first impressions matter.
"Many things in this business come down to perception," Boyd said.
The new terminal, which Boyd saw recently from the outside, "is a major, major upgrade," he said. "It's another arrow in Sacramento's quiver."
Nobody is suggesting the new terminal will fix Sacramento's economy or ease its 11.9 percent unemployment rate. But it is likely to make the region more marketable.
Put another way: SACTO's Barbara Hayes will no longer have to whisk business prospects through the terminal at supersonic speed, hoping they won't notice how lousy it is.
As executive director of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization, Hayes hosts companies thinking of bringing factories or other operations to the region. The old terminal hasn't been much help.
"We would meet clients at the bottom of the escalator at Terminal B and talk a blue streak until we got to the parking lot," she said.
The new terminal "is phenomenal," she said, and adds to Sacramento's overall attractiveness to businesses.
"I would put it in the same bucket as having the Kings here, the River Cats, having a beautiful stadium, the Crocker," she said.
Not that a new air terminal will make CEOs swoon. Berkeley economic development consultant Steve Wahlstrom said businesses are more interested in dollars-and-cents issues.
"The fundamentals are still, can businesses make money? Are there sites? Is there a qualified workforce?" said Wahlstrom, who advises communities for national consulting firm Economic Development Research Group Inc.
But Wahlstrom agreed the new terminal could help the region's image. "It's an intangible," he said.
And Trish Kelly, a Sacramentan who also consults on economic development issues, said it sends a strong, positive signal.
"It's a message to the outside that we think we can compete on a global scale," said Kelly, a principal with Applied Development Economics. "When you think of great cities, they have assets like that."
The facility could win over one constituency in particular: Sacramentans.
Air travel at Sacramento has fallen every year since the start of the recession, and airport executives are perpetually fighting to keep locals from using the Bay Area's airports.
Hardy Acree, the county airports director, said the new terminal could help.
"Offering a pleasant experience will cause us to stand out compared to the hassles getting in and out of Oakland and San Jose," Acree said. "This is an opportunity to move the needle."
Kathleen Wheeler, who owns Kathleen's World of Travel in Sacramento, agreed the terminal could prompt passengers to give the airport another try.
"I think people will start looking to Sacramento," she said.
It might prove persuasive with airlines, too.
Sacramento was especially hard-hit when airlines scaled back their flight schedules during the recession. In one 12-month stretch, Sacramento lost 13 percent of its service, as measured by passenger seats.
That has stabilized. Despite the weak economy, Sacramento service has increased by 1 percent in the past year, according to a nationwide analysis by USA Today. A new terminal could bring in more service.
"Having new gates, having new roadways for ground ops to move luggage all of these things matter to an airline," said Mark Raggio, a vice president with UBM Aviation consulting in Washington, D.C. "If you have new facilities, new infrastructure, expanded capacity, it becomes an attractive feature."
Hayes and Acree recently met with officials of two airlines that serve Sacramento. Their goal was to persuade the airlines to add flights. When talk turned to the new terminal, "it was an 'aha' moment for these people," Hayes said. "It definitely influenced the discussion."
One possible hurdle: To help pay for the new terminal, the airport has more than doubled the landing fees and other charges paid by airlines. The carriers have been squawking about the higher fees since construction began and are now negotiating new lease arrangements.
Some experts say fee structures don't affect airlines' flight schedules. Nor do fancy terminals. What matters is whether a community can deliver the passengers to justify a route.
"Terminals will not attract air service," said Mike Boyd of Colorado aviation consultant Boyd Group International. "Markets attract air service."
But Boyd no relation to the New Jersey consultant said Sacramento's new terminal makes sense.
"Will it attract new service from Frankfurt? No. But you have to do it," he said. "The old one didn't work."