After 19 years of planning, political fighting and searching for funding, Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport started construction on extending its major runway in hopes of attracting more corporate jet traffic this week.
The City Council recently voted to accept grants to pay for earthwork on the north-south runway, known as 18/36, starting on increasing its length from to 4,014 feet to 5,500 feet.
The city is celebrating with a groundbreaking today at 2 p.m. at the airport’s east ramp located at Hagen and Leinweber roads.
“It’s been a challenge, yet the way things happen in the world of aviation, it’s not that unusual,” said Ken Stremming, chairman of the city’s Board of Aeronautical Commissioners. He said building and operating airports often spawn controversy.
Stremming, a pilot, said he learned to fly at the airport in 1977 when it was a private air field; it was later purchased by the city. Stremming said he has used the airport for business trips in private planes, in his 30-year career selling for pharmaceutical company, and as a charter pilot.
“I think people would be surprised by the number of corporations from outside Lee’s Summit that use that airport,” Stremming said. Some have executives regularly visit from corporate home offices; others are coming to visit sites in the area looking for expansion opportunities.
“We are very excited to see the culmination of many years of preparation with the actual groundbreaking for the new airport expansion,” said Bill Brown, chairman of The Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council. “With the continued growth and development in Lee’s Summit and Eastern Jackson County, an airport, with the ability to provide for larger airplanes and greater air traffic, is a very good fit with our economic development efforts.”
The project’s contractor, Emery Sapp & Sons Inc., is clearing land and relocating water main and sewer, along with other necessary preparations for paving a longer runway.
The Federal Aviation Administration is providing a grant in the amount of nearly $7 million for this phase of construction, paying 90 percent of costs for construction and inspection, with the state and Lee’s Summit each contributing $378,175.
Paving for the runway is expected to begin in 12 months at the earliest and is anticipated to take from 12 to 18 months to be completed. City officials are waiting for final approval of grants, but they are in the capital improvement spending plans of both the FAA and MoDOT.
Getting funding for the city share was a struggle because of opposition from some council members and residents who live closest to the airport. Some complaints were financial, because the airport has tended to be a little short of covering its operating costs f or many years.
During the interim, there have been many other airport improvements in anticipation of the longer runway, such as acquiring land for a buffer, moving hangars and rebuilding taxiways to support the two runways. The city embarked on a project for public/private partnership for building the new hangars.
Opponents over the decades tried to block expansion by attempting to limit funding, once with a charter amendment that failed. They asked that funding come from a property tax devoted to the airport that would be voted on by residents, saying residents should have opportunity to decide the issue, but that was never put on the ballot by the city council.
Various sitting councils reached compromises that kept incremental financing of the project alive, particularly after a group of business leaders formed The Friends of Lee’s Summit Airport to support it politically.
Opponents often focused on noise and safety worries from increased air traffic.
At one time, the city looked at getting approval for an air traffic control tower to answer those fears, but the Federal Aviation Administration determined the number of flights weren’t sufficient to warrant that cost. To address noise issues, airport managers did create new flight paths for landing and departing planes, which helped reduce the noise over neighborhoods. The city commissioned consultants to come up with a business plan to make the airport a bigger financial success; the consultants endorsed the idea of longer runway.
The improved runways won’t bring major jetliners, but they are expected to make the airport more attractive to corporate jets.
Stremming said the longer runway will make it safer for jets with full fuel tanks to take off. Many of the jets using the facility are limited to partially filled fuel tanks, Stremming said, because the runway is too short to take off with the heavier load of a full tank, particularly in hot weather.
He said corporate pilots prefer to fly non-stop to the next destination, instead of making little hops and refueling, so boosting the amount of fuel they can carry from Lee’s Summit will encourage them to use the airport.
The two main revenue sources for operating the airport are fuels sales and hangar rentals, and the expansion is hoped to spur more of both.
About 50,000 take-offs and landings occur annually at the airport according to the city.
The fight was finally exhausted when the city studied the possibility of selling the airport and learned it can’t, primarily because of the federal investment in the expansion, said Mayor Randy Rhoads.
“When federal money was accepted years ago, before I was on the council, that kind of locked us into the airport, so let’s manage it the best we can,” Rhoads said.