Runway and apron construction projects will make for a busy spring at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport this year.
Eager to complete improvements to Runway 5/23 and take advantage of federal stimulus funds, Airport Manager Steve Sievek said Thursday the next few weeks will be an exciting time at the airport.
"The money is in place," he said. "The material is in place."
The airport was able to get an early jump on construction because of its easy access to Highway 210, a 10-ton road. Without access to Highway 210, he said, the weight limit restrictions of less durable roads would have delayed construction and the continual procession of dump trucks hauling away refuse from the runway.
Sievek, airport manager since 1994, said he hopes all the runway and apron construction will be completed by mid-June.
Money for Phase 1 of Runway 5/23, the reconstruction of the eastern portion of that stretch, was approved some time ago. Work on that 800-foot project began last fall. Phase 1 will cost about $1,032,026 (federal share), and $54,317 (local share), Sievek said. Work resumed on this 800-foot phase of the project on Tuesday.
Phase 2 of Runway 5/23 will cost $3,526,238 (federal share) and $185,591 (local share). The work involves replacing the asphalt with a concrete surface.
Total funding for Runway 5/23 (Phases 1 and 2) will cost $4,558,264 (federal share) and $239,908 (local share) for a total of $4,798,172.
A third project is a $1.137 million rehabilitation of the apron near the general aviation terminal.
These projects will be complemented by the construction of a five-unit hangar for private, corporate aircraft. Sievek said one unit is already spoken for and he doesn't anticipate any problems finding renters for the other spots since business aircraft use seems to be thriving more than the individually owned smaller planes.
"The big just seemed to be getting bigger," Sievek said. "There always seems to be a demand for bigger aircraft."
The number of ticketed passengers has decreased but Brainerd's number of ticketed passengers remains well above the annual magic number of 10,000 needed to access airport entitlement dollars.
In 2008, the Brainerd airport had 16,330 passengers - down 11 percent from the 17,400 figure in 2007. Those numbers may be compared to a high of 20,247 in 2000 and a recent low of 11,696 in 1995.
Year-to-date the passenger numbers are down 18 percent from this point last year, Sievek said. January was down 28 percent compared to the same month in 2008. In a sign of some encouragement the month of March was down less than 3 percent compared with the previous March.
"I think we're doing all right," Sievek said.
Summer is the big travel period with more flights in and out of Brainerd and resorts and summer homes serving as popular destinations.
Sievek said Brainerd's 16,330 passenger number holds up well when compared to other outstate cities when influential factors such as distance from the Twin Cities are considered. In 2008 Hibbing had 8,240 passengers; Bemidji, 21,160 passengers; St. Cloud, 19,740; and International Falls, 16,240.
One ongoing concern Sievek has is the number of passengers the Brainerd airport loses to airports in St. Cloud and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Business travel is the key component of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport's customer numbers. Sievek estimated business travelers make up about 1,000 customers a month. He also sees an increasing number of people who work at home and periodically travel to corporate headquarters.
A vital airport, in Sievek's mind, is a boon to a community's economy. One attitude that Sievek thinks is mistaken is the notion that the airport is merely a playground for the wealthy and doesn't attract new businesses.
"That's clearly (spoken by) people who have no clue," he said. "I think (an airport is) one of the first things they look at - convenient air service."
The airport's operating budget is $944,000 a year. The city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County combine to pay the local share of $310,000 a year and the state pays $145,000 a year. The remainder of the revenue is generated through hangar rentals, fuel sales, landing fees and the rental of airline space.
In the 15 years that Sievek has been manager he has overseen major remodeling projects to both terminals and the construction of 12 hangars.
Although he didn't come from an aviation background, Sievek served on the Brainerd-Crow Wing County Airport Commission for eight years during the time he was a Crow Wing County commissioner.
The task of running the airport falls on Sievek, four full-time maintenance people and a secretary who works 85 percent of a full-time schedule. Sievek or at least one member of the four-person maintenance crew must be on hand when Mesaba Airlines planes land and take off. They must be trained as emergency medical technicians and firefighters. They're also responsible for maintaining the grounds, the buildings and plowing snow in the winter.
The airport must be manned from about 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week (including holidays).
The airport staff is prepared to operate a $634,000 fire truck which Sievek said he hopes never has to be used.
Credit for the ability to operate efficiently goes to several entities, according to Sievek.
"I have some good employees and a good progressive airport commission and support from Brainerd and Crow Wing County," he said.
Sievek is confident the current improvements being made at the airport will benefit the Brainerd area when the economy bounces back.
"I think we're going to be well-positioned when it turns around," he said.
MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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