WATERVILLE — The city expects to learn by April whether it will get foreign trade zone status at and around its airport.

Having that designation at Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport would boost area economic development efforts significantly in a number of ways, according to Darryl Sterling, executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council.

Sterling, who worked on the foreign trade zone application, said businesses would have an incentive to move to the airport, as duties would be waived for companies doing business with foreign companies.

For example, if an area business gets a shipment of a million pieces of metal from Vietnam to make special equipment and the duty on each piece of metal is $1, the total duty is $1 million — and that amount would be waived.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to endorse the application for reissuance of a foreign trade zone designation to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Secretary of the Foreign Trade Zone Board.

Working with Waterville Development Corp., the city last year bought 62 acres next to the airport from Union Corp., which had been awarded foreign trade zone status but never used it. That is why the application is for a reissuance, according to Sterling.

The city asked the Central Maine Growth Council to do the application work. The group also is trying to draw businesses to the airport and city, including those related to precision manufacturing, food processing and distribution, aviation and aerospace research, computer and software development, health care and information technology products and services.

As part of the application process, Sterling worked with the state Department of Economic and Community Development and gave tours of the airport to officials from U.S. Customs, U.S. Border Patrol, and Port Authority.

Having the trade-zone status will be critical to success at the airport and beyond, according to Sterling.

“I think this is one of the key pieces to the economic development puzzle,” he said. “You’re going to actually see the picture on the puzzle box now, because there is a direct benefit for the greater Waterville area, and this will help boost investment in other areas.”

Meanwhile, the city has made recent improvements to the airport, including painting and renovating the terminal building, installing a new access ramp, adding a new logo and signs and landscaping the grounds.

A 2,300-square-foot cross-wind runway was paved and re-opened in October after having been closed four years. Funding for that included a $750,000 grant from the FAA and money from the city. This year and next, the primary, 5,500-square-foot runway will be rebuilt with a $7 million FAA grant, as well as city funds.

DECD officials are working with the airport to put a kiosk at the facility touting Maine-made products, Sterling said.

Sterling, who is on the city’s airport committee, said he is 99 percent sure the city will get foreign trade zone status. He said after it is received, he will try to get approval for companies not located at the airport but using the facility for foreign shipments and deliveries to get foreign trade zone benefits, including waived duties.

The airport is featured in a front-page story by Sterling in the Nov. 2-8 issue of New England Real Estate Journal, which covers New England and gets exposure all over the Northeast..

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Rosemary Winslow, D-Ward 3, also an airport committee member, said in her many years on the council, she has seen some negative attitudes toward the airport, but that has changed.

“I think we’re in the best place, and it feels good not having to do repair work with the FAA,” she said. “I’m liking it.”

If Waterville receives foreign trade zone status, it would be the fifth in the state to have it behind Bangor, Madawaska, Auburn and Brunswick.

In other matters, the council heard a report from Christian Smith, whose company, Macpage LLC, of South Portland, completed a financial audit report for the city, working with city management.

The city’s total net assets for the year ending June 30, 2012, are $27,380 million, according to the report. Part of that amount, $15,381 million, is a net investment in capital assets.

The city’s fund balance is about $6 million, which is 17 percent of the city’s total expenditures; the city’s policy is to maintain a fund balance of at least 18 percent.

Smith said his company had no disagreements or difficulties performing the audit.

“You’re definitely in good financial condition,” he said.

The council also voted 7-0 to approve a memorandum of understanding for the city-owned Quarry Road Recreation Area. The document serves as a guide for both the city and Friends of Quarry Road, an organization that helps raise money and increase public awareness of the facility, and makes recommendations.

Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan said any improvements made at the facility are city-owned.

“I think it’s a pretty solid, guiding document for all of us,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
acalder@centralmaine.com