WATERVILLE — The Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport is poised to handle more jet traffic and service aircraft better after millions of dollars’ worth of work over the last two years, city officials say.
Those investments at the city-owned airport include a newly reconstructed main runway, new equipment, a renovated terminal, a self-serve fueling system, aircraft maintenance and flight school businesses on site and plans for further marketing.
“Over the last two years we’ve made investments because of a lack of equipment, and the facilities needed to be upgraded,” airport Manager Randy Marshall said. “The airport didn’t have the welcome mat out. Now we’re at a pivotal time in the airport’s history where we’ve made a lot of smart investments to position the airport to attract businesses to our community and provide the services they’re going to need to support their growth and the growth of the city.”
Mayor Nick Isgro said he expects the airport, with its improvements, to continue to see more activity and air traffic as it becomes “central Maine’s premiere and most attractive airport.”
“I’m very proud that the city several years ago decided to take steps to go in that direction, because I think it was a make-or-break moment for the airport,” Isgro said.
Officials say the enhanced airport could have a big economic impact on the region.
LaFleur has more than 350 fenced-in acres and another 100 or so beyond that, which includes the Airport Business Park. The park, which houses Suburban Propane and Pine Tree Waste, has lots of room for more businesses.
The city and the airport are working with the Central Maine Growth Council and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce to try to draw more businesses to the park, according to Marshall.
Garvan Donegan, economic development specialist for the growth council, said his organization is taking a couple of different approaches in trying to help market the airport.
“How do we tell the story of the airport? And the subtext is, how are we promoting airports on the supply and demand side of economic development as it relates to the foreign trade zone, abutting industrial sites and acreage? And how are we using it to retain and attract businesses?” Donegan said.
Part of that marketing component is making sure the airport is included when large site evaluation companies do national, regional and local evaluations, according to Donegan.
“It’s not just a typical marketing campaign. It is a little bit more classic economic development,” he said.
The airport and the park are in the foreign trade zone, which allows companies doing business with foreign companies to get tax breaks and duty referrals and receive help with cash flow problems.
In the larger scheme of things, Donegan sees airports as allowing greater access to markets. They are economic drivers for the region and help advance global economies.
“Really, airports are robustly linked with economic development,” Donegan said.
United Parcel Service flies out of the airport to Manchester, New Hampshire, five nights a week with packages and other freight from its terminal on Industrial Road. Five mornings a week, UPS brings a load of freight back into LaFleur, according to Marshall.
Administrators from big-box stores such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart fly into the airport in jets, he said. Sappi engineers, politicians, people from Backyard Farms in Madison, summer campers and college students and their families, celebrities attending the Maine International Film Festival, aerial photographers and others use the airport, which also serves as a training ground for police and fire officials, as well as LifeFlight of Maine. State police, the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Marine Patrol are among entities that have based planes at the airport, according to Marshall.
The airport has 13 hangars, two of which are owned by the city — the main hangar and one on the north end of the airport, which stores maintenance items including snowplows and snow blowing equipment.
Officials are applying for an FAA grant to build a new maintenance building so the hangar can be used to house aircraft instead of equipment. They also plan to apply for a second grant to purchase a new snowblower to replace one that has outlived its usefulness.
Eleven hangars at the airport are owned privately by pilots who live in Waterville, Winslow, Sidney, Belgrade, Palermo and other surrounding communities and have smaller planes such as Cessnas and Pipers.
John Brier, a retired commercial pilot for United Airlines, owns a hangar that houses an Ercoupe, a two-seater plane he flies with an open cockpit. His is one of more than 27 private planes kept at the airport.
Brier, 74, lives in Oakland in the summer and Florida in the winter. He also has a plane in Florida.
“I call this my full-service (fixed-base operator),” Brier said of LaFleur airport. “I come here every day. I have my coffee. I read the newspaper every day. I’m very happy here. They do a tremendous job.”
Brier praised Marshall and the city for improvements made to the airport.
“This guy headed it up,” he said of Marshall, who also is a call firefighter for both Waterville and Oakland.
The airport’s main runway was reconstructed in May and June with a $4.3 million Federal Aviation Administration grant, as well as $214,000 from the city and $214,000 from the state. The project came in $300,000 under budget. The airport was closed May 4 to July 2 for the work, which was contracted to Lane Construction, of Westbrook. R A Paradis & Son, of Newport, was the subcontractor.
About 5,500 feet long and 100 feet wide, it also got new running and approach lights, signs, navigational aids and underdrains as part of the project. The 2,300-by-60-foot crosswind runway was reconstructed in 2012 for about $900,000. In addition to rebuilding the main runway this year, the airport worked with the state and partnered with other airports to seal LaFleur’s taxiways.
The airport, which has a full instrument landing system, is noticeably more active than it was three years ago.
Black Bear Aviation, owned by Kevin Dauphinee, is on site with four employees performing aircraft maintenance, painting, sales and repair. Air New England, a charter service, also is on site, and AirLink LLC offers a flight school and scenic flights. The two businesses, owned by Klaus Thalinger, employ five people. Marshall and the airport’s maintenance technician, Ed Lively, are employed by the city full time, and line service specialist Mike Brown works part time.
The Maine-themed main terminal, which just a few years ago was dark and dingy, gleams with pine walls and counters, a leather sofa, a propane fireplace, television and a small gift shop.
The main hangar, previously used for cold storage for airplanes, was busy Thursday afternoon, with Black Bear staff members repairing, painting and/or detailing several aircraft, including a red-and-white Beechcraft Bonanza.
“A lot of the new equipment we purchased is over here,” Marshall said, motioning to the north end of the hangar.
His 8-year-old golden retriever, Molly, at his side, Marshall pointed out the new or refurbished equipment, including a ground power unit that provides power to aircraft for heating and air conditioning, a de-icing machine, a laboratory cart that sucks sewage out of airplane bathrooms and an aircraft tug.
“This is all equipment that enables us to operate efficiently throughout the year,” Marshall said.
In the corner, Black Bear and airport workers were sharing tools, including a drill press and a grinder.
“The whole idea behind everything we’ve been trying to do is partner with businesses, to let them grow and the airport grow,” Marshall said.
Also in the main terminal, airport employees proctor computer-based tests in a secure setting for PSI Testing Services, a national company that tests people in the medical, engineering, construction and real estate fields, and the airport gets revenue from the activity.
ROOM TO GROW
Dauphinee, the owner of Black Bear, moved his business to LaFleur from Dexter in 2013. On any given day, his business might be doing maintenance on several aircraft in the main hangar, he said. The company also has two aircraft it rents out for flights.
Black Bear has a lot of local clients, but on Thursday the staff was working on planes from Alaska, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In some cases, aircraft owners fly their planes to Waterville to be worked on; but Dauphinee also retrieves airplanes from their home bases and flies them to LaFleur for maintenance, repairs or overhauls.
He said his business has grown a lot since moving to Waterville.
“It’s great — can’t beat it,” he said. “It’s a great location. The new runway and all that is going to help out quite a bit.”
Dauphinee, whose 3-year-old German short-haired dog, Willy, wanders about the terminal, said the airport is continuing to draw more users.
“I think it’s come a long way, and the self-serve fuel is great. I really think this is going to be a top contender in the state for a destination airport,” he said.
Marshall said the number of aircraft flying into the airport varies.
“I’ve had times when I’ve had more than 20 jets on our ramp — all private jets,” he said. “Our busier season is April through September, with the busiest time in the summer. When people fly here, they’re not only spending money at the airport, they’re utilizing our hotels, our restaurants, our local shops, rental car companies. They’re spending money in our communities. If we weren’t here, that money would be spent in somebody else’s community.”
City Manager Mike Roy said he thinks the Great Recession stymied air traffic in and out of the airport, “but I think we’re climbing out of that.”
Roy also complimented Marshall on the work he has done.
“A big part of the airport’s resurgence, I think, is due to the fact that we have Randy there. We now have someone full time as an airport manager where we didn’t in the past. We have somebody who wakes up every day thinking, ‘How can we make the airport better?’”
Last year, the airport spent $25,000 on property and airfield maintenance, $100,000 on personnel costs and $80,000 to $100,000 on annual operating expenses.
Marshall said the goal is to offset operating expenses, and that’s nearly happened in recent years.
“The ideology behind it is to build the airport into the economic generator that will attract businesses to Waterville,” he said. “We’re not breaking even yet.”
Last year, the airport lost about $100,000; but five or six years ago, it operated at a deficit of $130,000 to $150,000 and had nothing to show for it, according to Marshall.
“Now we’re operating at a fraction of the expense to the taxpayers, have a lot to show and a lot to offer.”
Roy, the city manager, agreed that the airport spent $100,000 more than it took in last year to provide services, but that is expected to change.
“We’re certainly hoping to close that gap,” he said. “Our goal is to close that gap between expenses and revenues so it become self-supporting and even revenue producing.”
Marshall points to the airport’s convenient location in central Maine, as well as other assets that will help spur growth.
“Interstate 95 is here. We have a facility that is not only welcoming, it’s safe, it’s efficient, and we have the equipment to serve the airport and proper training to operate safely,” he said. “There isn’t an inch of this airport that we haven’t gone over.”
In addition to a goal of breaking even, the airport hopes one day to have a restaurant on site, and there is room for a lot more hangars, according to Marshall.
“What I’d love to see is private investment,” Marshall said. “It’d be nice to see corporate hangars and aircraft based here.”
Staffs at other airports have been calling Marshall, seeking guidance and advice on issues he has already dealt with at LaFleur.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “We’ve become a leader in the general aviation community in terms of how we operate our facility.”