WATERVILLE — The city-owned Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport is positioned for growth, now that the area around it has received foreign trade zone status, the terminal has been renovated, equipment bought and the crosswind runway paved, officials said.

The main runway is scheduled to be paved in 2015, and three hangars are expected to be built in the next year.

“The airport will be an economic generator for our region,” said Darryl Sterling, executive director of Central Maine Growth Council.

Sterling, a member of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee, applied to the U.S. Department of Commerce for the foreign trade zone status, which will give businesses incentives to move to the airport, as duties would be waived for those doing business with foreign countries. Jobs will be created as a result, he said.

“This is going to be the ticket that gets us into the international competitive market,” Sterling said.

In a foreign trade zone, merchandise may be stored, exhibited, assembled, manufactured, produced and processed without having to go through formal customs procedures or pay duties or federal excise taxes. Sterling believes the new activity at the airport will draw businesses to Airport Business Park, along Airport Road.

“The dots are all connected,” he said.

Touting the airport

The city has managed day-to-day operations at the airport since 2005 when the last official fixed-base operator left. Telford Aviation managed the airport from 1982 to about 1998, and two subsequent operators were unsuccessful.

This week about 150 business people, city officials, aircraft enthusiasts and others socialized at the airport at the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours event.

They toured the newly renovated terminal building, whose lobby sports a Maine feel with its knotty pine walls and new furniture. The building has been painted both inside and out, offices updated, a fence installed and wheelchair ramp built.

“This is what welcomes people to Waterville when they arrive,” said Airport Manager Randy Marshall Jr. “This is the first impression they have.”

Marshall and his staff of three did nearly all of the renovation work themselves. Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office inmates helped strip the old floor and do other work, Marshall said.

The airport is a base for UPS shipments, private aircraft and some commercial flights. There are 11 privately owned hangars at the 450-acre airport, which has signed three additional leases, according to Marshall.

“We’re hoping in the next year we’ll see three more hangars going up,” he said.

In addition to physical changes, the airport has made operational changes, he said.

“All line, or FBO (fixed base operator) staff have become nationally certified as professional line services technicians,” he said.

The city bought some refurbished ground service equipment, including a $32,000 tug that will be used to move planes around and a $95,000 mobile refueler that can be connected to airplanes where they are parked. Fuel sales represent the primary lifeblood of the airport in terms of revenue, according to Marshall.

The city also bought a $27,000 ground power unit that may be plugged into aircraft to heat the cabins or start engines in winter — or cool cabins with air conditioning in summer, he said.

The new capability will attract more and larger aircraft, he said, which will lead to more fuel sales.

The city also bought a $30,300 de-icer and a $5,900 lavatory service unit that empties aircraft lavatories.

The airport’s mission is to encourage and support commerce, Marshall said, but not burden taxpayers. The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to be as self-sufficient as possible, he said.

“We want to fund our own,” Marshall said. “That is our goal — to be self-sufficient.”

Aviation Appearance Plus, an aircraft cleaning and detailing business, recently moved to the airport, which also houses Airlink Aviation LLC, a flight instruction school, and Air New England, a charter service.

The city recently bought 62 acres next to the airport for $247,500. The land may be used to expand the airport in the future or build a road from Kennedy Memorial Drive to Webb Road, according to city officials. The city could develop lots on the property for commercial, industrial and residential use.

An $818,000 FAA grant funded the paving of the crosswind runway. The state pitched in $22,000 and the city $68,000.

Last year, 2,000 gallons of aircraft fuel worth about $8,000 were reported missing from the airport. No one was identified in the apparent theft. In response, the city has installed surveillance cameras in and outside the terminal building. Hangars and parking areas also are covered.

“We made changes to how we secure the airport and how we protect our assets,” Marshall said.

Breaking even

City Manager Michael Roy said the airport in past years lost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year.

“This year, we expect to come close to breaking even,” he said. “There’s no question we’re doing better.”

He attributes the upswing to the hiring of Marshall as manager and increasing his staff to three. Also, the investments in the airport have increased jet traffic.

“The improving economy also has meant more air traffic,” Roy said.

Roy, who attended the open house Wednesday, said the airport has undergone a big transformation from a facility that was considered out of the way and ignored.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “There’s just been a whole new energy and a different feel for the airport.”

He said there’s no question that an airport is an important economic development tool for a city or region, and it attracts new growth and helps to improve existing businesses.

“Unfortunately, the city in the past hadn’t been able to invest to make a difference,” he said.

He said he thinks Mayor Karen Heck and the City Council’s strategy to invest in the airport was good.

“Essentially, we had to spend money to make more money,” he said.

Heck said Thursday that after she was elected in 2011, she asked pilots and others to be on the Airport Advisory Committee, pool their ideas and energy, and see what they could come up with for the airport. She believed the airport was the key to the city’s economic future. Many of the changes at the airport since then were generated from that committee’s ideas.

“The ultimate goal, I think, is to get passenger service here again,” Heck said.

She gave a lot of credit to Marshall, who has trained staff to take care of vehicle rentals for people flying in, if the rental car company is closed.

“That kind of forward thinking, collaborative, entrepreneurial effort on Randy’s part, is just critical. It’s the key to why so many things are happening at the airport.”

Many people fly in to visit Colby College. Heck said Colby helped recently and mowed the airport after she called Colby President William Adams to tell him the city’s mower had broken down and ask if the college could help.

Roy noted that people should feel free to visit the airport any time, look around and ask questions.

“It’s a city facility — it’s funded by the taxpayers, it’s funded by all of us in the city” Roy said. “We always try to encourage people to look at what they’re supporting.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

 

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