After more than a quarter-century of debate and planning, the earth movers have arrived at the Ravalli County Airport in Hamilton.
The Ravalli County Commission gave the green light to the nearly $15 million project to build a longer runway and make other improvements at the airport earlier this year after receiving a key grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The commission signed a $12 million contract with S and K Construction to build the new 5,200-foot long runway that’s located north and east of the airport’s current 4,200-foot-long runway.
Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows said the plan to build the new runway has been in the works for decades.
The county selected the alternative in 2012, but there were several “roadblocks and hurdles” that had to be cleared before work could get started.
Acquiring the needed funding was a large challenge from the start. Most FAA grants required a 10% local match.
“From the beginning, we were expecting this to be a $12 to $15 million project,” Burrows said. “We don’t have an extra $1.5 million in our budget to pay for the match.”
While a local organization stepped forward to offer to pick up the required match, some supplemental FAA funding was released earlier this year that ended up covering nearly all of the project’s price tag.
Burrows said the fact the airport’s environmental analysis was complete and the project was essentially “shovel ready” helped the county to acquire that federal funding.
Burrows expects the new runway to be operational by early to mid-summer.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Burrows said. “There will be some hopefully relatively short closures of the airport next year, but it seems like there is a good plan in place moving forward to getting it done.”
The Hamilton airport is one of the busiest general aviation facilities in the state. In 2019, there were 78 aircraft based there, including two jets and seven multi-engine aircraft. An estimated 23,600 either take off or land there annually.
A longer runway combined with the flattening of a hillside on the airport’s northern edge offers a boon to U.S. Forest Service firefighting capabilities, said Bitterroot National Forest Fire Management Officer Mark Wilson.
In the past, fixed-wing air tankers flying out of the Hamilton Airport often couldn’t take off with full loads of fuel and retardant.
“Depending on the temperature and weather conditions, they would have to reduce their loads by 10-25%,” Wilson said. “It was definitely a hindrance. By lengthening the runway, that limitation will be gone now.”
With the airport infrastructure expansion underway, Wilson expects that the Forest Service will look to make its footprint more permanent.
“At some point, if this expansion had not happened, we may have abandoned the airport as a SEAT (single-engine air tanker) base,” Wilson said.
The impacts for firefighting will be felt beyond the borders of the Bitterroot National Forest. Aircraft based in Hamilton will also be deployed to surrounding national forests, like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Salmon-Challis.
“We are closer to them than Missoula or Ronan,” Wilson said. “There can be limitations to flying out of Missoula due to heavy air traffic. That can add a lot of time getting in and out of Missoula.”
Ravalli County Economic Development Authority executive director Julie Foster said it’s not only people with airplanes who will benefit from the airport project.
In 2017, the RCEDA analyzed the economic impact of the airport. Its study found that the 10 aviation-related tenants at the airport had grown from supporting 57 jobs in 2008 to 204 in 2016. If the airport was viewed as a single entity, it would rank among the top six employers in the county.
The estimated payroll in 2016 was almost $7.5 million. Spending by visitors who used the airport was estimated at $6.1 million.
Hanger owners paid $69,181 in taxes to the county in 2016. The county also received about $12,000 in airplane registration fees annually. If the airport paid taxes as a single entity, it would be the 14th largest taxpayer in the county.
The airport is the anchor of the Ravalli County Targeted Economic Development District. Foster said the airport expansion was an important first step in creating the infrastructure needed to bring additional investment into the district.
The city of Hamilton and county are working on a plan to extend city sewer to the site, which would open up new opportunities for economic development, she said.
“I think things will happen there,” Foster said. “I just had a couple from Oregon email me today asking about the airport and its economic outlook. When people asked those questions before, it was hard to give them an answer. People want to have some certainty before investing in a business.”
Choice Aviation co-owner Leland Blatter said the airport board is already seeing interest from people in wanting to build new hangars.
“There are people who have chosen to keep their aircraft elsewhere,” Blatter said. “They weren’t willing to build a hangar when they couldn’t be sure about the future of the airport.”
Under FAA rules, Blatter said the current runway is too close to existing buildings and endangered future federal funding used for maintenance and construction projects.
All of the FAA funding for the current expansion comes from federal fuel taxes.
It’s not only air tankers used for firefighting that will benefit from the longer runway. Depending on weather conditions, there were times other aircraft had to leave Hamilton without their fuel tanks topped off.
“It will allow aircraft that are currently using the airport to leave more money in our community,” Blatter said. “They will be able to better utilize the services we already provide at the airport…It will also improve the safety margin so they can more consistently use the Ravalli County airport.”
“We have invested several million in the airport not knowing what the future was for the airport, but with the confidence that there would be one here,” he said. “Having security now that there will be an airport here for the foreseeable future is in itself a good thing for our business.”