The Porter County Regional Airport recently received a $1.4 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, one in a series of grants totaling millions of dollars being used to restore the airport’s east-west runway.
The airport is an economic boon to both the county and the region, providing an advantage for local businesses and bringing in millions of dollars in revenue each year.
“Our airport has been No. 1 in the state for based aircraft and ranks between third and sixth for operations, historically. We are one of the busiest airports in the state, considering we are not a carrier (for a commercial airline),” said airport manager Kyle Kuebler, adding much of the airport’s traffic is from three flight schools based there and corporate aviation.
According to statistics from the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation, the airport had 160 aircraft based there in 2014, and 39,056 operation — defined as takeoffs and landings — the same year.
Agency statistics show the Gary/Chicago International Airport had 22,029 operations last year.
“Just like the airport in Gary, the Porter County Airport is a significant driver of regional economic activity. A 2012 estimate put its economic impact at more than $17 million annually,” said Bill Hanna, president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, in a news release about the most recent grant award.
The east-west runway, which at 7,000 feet is the same length as the runway at Chicago’s Midway Airport, is a great tool to attract industry to the area and Pratt Industries is an example of that, said Rex Richards, president of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce.
Pratt opened a cardboard recycling facility in Valparaiso off of Indiana 49 last month and uses the airport for its corporate fleet, Richards said.
“It’s so convenient for executives to have an airport the size of ours,” he said, adding Taskforce Tips uses the airport to ferry visitors and customers, and Urschel Laboratories has a hanger and a plane there.
The airport also makes surrounding property “very desirable,” Richards said. Valparaiso and Porter County, which both own land around the airport, are working together on a development plan for the area.
Initial bids for the project, which include restoring a parallel taxiway and an intersection with the airport’s north-south runway, came in at $12.6 million, but Kuebler expects the project to cost much less.
“The bidding has gone very well so the price is going down,” he said, adding he doesn’t yet know the final cost of the work.
The airport received $2.15 million in the first round of grant money for the project in September 2014, and received an additional $4.37 million in May. Including the most recent grant, announced last week by the office of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, the airport has received $7.96 million so far.
The FAA is funding 90 percent of the work, Kuebler said, with a state match from INDOT of 5 percent, and a 5 percent match from the RDA.
The money is being used to “reconstruct the entire east-west runway and taxiway system,” Kuebler said.
The work is being done in phases because of the expense. Some of the work, including the intersection with the north-south runway, which is 4,000 feet long, and part of the taxiway system, was completed in early August, which forced the airport to close for a week.
Kuebler hopes to get the rest of the funding next year and do the remaining work in the spring and the fall, but the airport will not need to close down because pilots will be able to use the north-south runway.
“We tried to minimize our closure,” he said.
The east-west runway was constructed in 1966 and resurfaced in 1983 and again in 1999 but the FAA wants a 20-year lifespan on runways and testing revealed the runway again needed work.
“We decided the money was better spent reconstructing it,” Kuebler said.