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MnDOT discusses airport needs with officials

Park Rapids city officials and aviation stakeholders joined representatives of Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Aeronautics and Aviation Tuesday for an airport needs meeting.

Park Rapids city officials and aviation stakeholders joined representatives of Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Aeronautics and Aviation Tuesday for an airport needs meeting.

Cassandra Isackson, MnDOT aeronautics director, said it was a type of meeting MnDOT has been having for three years. She contrasted this with what she called a CIP meeting, in which representatives of airports in an area would come to a central location to discuss their capital improvement plans.

"We just found that we weren't learning enough about what the community was really interested in for their airport," she said. "We also had information that we wanted to share."

Isackson and other MnDOT representatives shared a great deal of information during a two-hour meeting with 20 in attendance.

Needs forward

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Isackson asked local participants to name one thing they would change about the airport.

Marcus Watson, an airport planner with TKDA engineering, said a short-term priority is to build the infrastructure to support the development of more hangars.

City Treasurer Angela Brumbaugh said there are 10 to 15 names on the hangar waiting list.

"We have people who have been on that list for seven years," she said.

City Administrator John McKinney said the city views the airport as "a starting point for other economic development. We don't have a railroad. We don't have an interstate. But we have an airport, and a pretty good one. But we've got to have the space."

Jeff Voigt with Park Rapids Aviation Inc., the fixed-base operator of the airport, said a remodel of the arrival/departure building is overdue.

Airport satisfaction

Isackson asked local participants what would make for a satisfying airport, in addition to being an economic driver for the community.

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Airport Commissioner Thom Peterson, who sells real estate, said that there was "something to" the perception that the shortage of hangar space might hinder some high-end homebuyers from choosing Park Rapids as their retirement destination.

Regarding air medical services, Peterson said the airport's instrument landing system (ILS) puts Konshok Field in a different league than nearby airfields. "If you have a bad injury or bad accident and it's terrible weather, you can get out of Park Rapids," he said, "but you can't get out of Detroit Lakes or Wadena or Walker."

John DeCoster with Trillion Aviation, who advises the city regarding airport business services, said 3M's Wonewok Conference Center has been a huge asset - "not just the lodge itself but all the businesses that they support up here." Recalling a conversation with 3M's chief pilot, he said, "The ILS is integral to them."

DeCoster added that a satisfying airport must "be one that can support growth of the existing tenants, as well as look for new tenants. You can't forget the people who are here."

"There might be a perception in some people's minds that this is a place where grown men put their toys," said McKinney. "We are far from that. We had that, but basically, our success in the last five years is turning that around, and becoming self-sufficient and eager to have more going on than that."

Watson agreed, "It's really an airport that's open to all users. You've got the businesses, the corporate traffic, pilots of small aircraft. It's a wide variety of general aviation users."

"Over the Fourth of July week," Voigt said, "We had no place to tie any more airplanes down. We were just having to chock planes out."

Airport authority

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City Council Member Erika Randall voiced concern about the city, which owns the airport, being responsible for the local share of capital projects, though many of airport arrivals reside in the county.

Randall said the county has never been approached about contributing to the airport. "If we don't ask, they're never going to help," she said.

City ownership of local airports is the norm in Minnesota, Isackson said, but there are cases of an airport authority involving both a city and a county, or multiple cities or counties.

Meeting participants knew of several airport authorities around the state. Isackson said their main advantage is a broader tax base.

"St. Cloud is currently doing a big study around their possibilities," she said. "They have multiple counties involved in that because of the size of their facility. That's been driven by the business community, which sees the value of the airport and wants to enhance its use."

MnDOT Airport Development Engineer Matt Lebens said the Detroit Lakes airport, half owned by Becker County, may be a model of what Park Rapids is looking for.

Isackson said some counties participate in capital projects at city-owned airports without being part of an airport authority.

"There are more counties that contribute than are in authorities, especially for capital projects," she said. "I don't know that they would necessarily contribute to your operating costs, but if you had a good-sized capital project, like this building, they might contribute."

Asked whether a referendum would be required to establish the tax levy for an airport authority, Isackson said that under Minnesota Law, an airport authority has the taxing authority of the municipality.

Though much of Hubbard County is closer to Bemidji than Park Rapids, Isackson did not think this would necessarily prevent the county having a stake in the airport.

"There are counties that participate in multiple airports," she said. "They just see the value in it, just like they would participate in roads across their county. They see it as transportation infrastructure."

MnDOT review

MnDOT personnel walked the attendees through a packet of material about the airport's operations and finances, urging staff to update items where needed.

These materials included findings from the airport's July 2017 inspection, in which numerous lighting issues were reported; a December 2016 report on the condition of the airport's pavement, with advice about the best approach to pavement management; and advice about having a heliport, which Voigt said has not found much interest locally.

Also presented was a list of all the projects at the Park Rapids airport since 1946 that have received state funding, including currently open projects.

"Yours is one of the oldest airports in the state," Isackson noted, based on the history of projects in which the state partnered with the local community.

Solar, drones

Isackson reminded city staff to consult MnDot Aeronautics about the impact of glare on airport approaches before permitting solar energy facilities in the airport safety zone.

"To my knowledge, there has never been one facility that didn't go in because of the impact to an airport in Minnesota," said Isackson. "It's always just a slight modification. But it's much easier to do that when it's in the permitting process than after they've started."

Isackson said drones are challenging the FAA's long-standing control over all things airborne.

"Members of Congress, even FAA, recognize that there are a lot of drone issues that are not interstate commerce," she said. "They're local issues. Local government is going to want to have a say and a role."

Isackson added, "When it's disputes between neighbors, they're not calling FAA. They're calling 911, local law enforcement. A lot of the challenges of the drones aren't aviation challenges; they're privacy, trespass, those kinds of issues. They're about the police powers that state and local government have historically had."

Discussion moved to navigation aids, including the airport's federally-owned VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) system, which will likely be decommissioned by 2025.

Isackson noted that if the city provides a courtesy car for airport arrivals, it could be insured through the League of Minnesota Cities. Currently, Voigt offers his privately owned courtesy car.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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