• Construction planned in 2013, runway project scheduled for 2017 completion
BROOKINGS – It’s been more than six years since the City of Brookings discovered it had problems with its airport, but City Manager Jeff Weldon says he’s beginning to see the light at the end of the runway.
Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are still five years off, but Weldon said this week most of the major hurdles are out of the way, and construction probably will begin in the spring.
Right now, Weldon and his staff are trying to complete negotiations for the four remaining parcels of land needed for the reconstruction of the main and crosswind runways.
About 150 acres are involved in the transactions, the land lying north and west of the current airport property. The land includes wetlands and swamps, a haying area and a produce operation.
“We have completed the state process for appraisal,” Weldon said this week. He added that he and his staff have met with the owners and have made offers to purchase the land at the appraised price.
In addition to securing property for project needs, the city manager noted that in several cases the city has offered to buy additional land, “just so the owners wouldn’t be left with an unusable parcel.”
Weldon said five owners are involved with the four properties, and only one has agreed to sell. A second owner is adamant about not selling, and that case is likely to become part of a city condemnation proceeding. The other three owners have received the appraisals and the city’s offer, and negotiations are continuing.
Weldon said he expects to pay about $640,000 for property acquisition this year, and the city will spend another $500,000 in 2012 tweaking the final design for the runway project.
City officials had hoped to begin construction this year, but time is getting short for a fall start. It’s more likely the realignment will begin next spring, and from that point the work will continue nonstop for the next four years.
“As soon as we get the property acquired, we can start on construction,” Weldon said.
The city first learned it had troubles with the Brookings Regional Airport when the Federal Aviation Administra-tion advised that some airport-area buildings were in violation of federal airspace regulations and that the city would have to remedy the situation.
Problems included not only incompatible land use surrounding the airport’s runways – homes and businesses located in the runway protection zones – but the unsafe intersection of the main runway and the crosswind runway. Further, the main runway was too short to meet capacity needs.
City councilors considered two options: realigning the runways and lengthening the main runway at the present airport, or moving the airport to another location in rural Brookings County.
That decision was made in late 2010 to rebuild the runways at the present site, and since that time the city has been involved in multiple studies of the area.
“All the studies are done, all the environmental assessments,” Weldon said, “and we think we’re out of the woods.”
He said it’s been an exhaustive process, with “a historic review of the property, a total environmental review, Fish & Wildlife review, an endangered species review – all kinds of studies, and with multiple agencies at both state and federal levels, including the Corps of Engineers, Game, Fish & Parks and both state and federal historic preservation groups.”
Some of those studies considered the project’s impact on the Topeka shiners in Six-Mile Creek, and there were similar concerns about the endangered prairie fringed orchid.
The airport runway rebuild will involve moving a portion of the flood-prone Six-Mile Creek, another sensitive matter.
“I can’t say rerouting will improve it (the creek’s flooding),” Weldon admitted, “but we can’t do anything we know would make it worse.”
The waterway will be moved during “one of the first phases of construction.”
The main runway will be rebuilt in 2013 and 2014, and the crosswind runway in 2016 and 2017. The work is scheduled to match federal funding cycles.
“We envision being able to keep the airport open, or with brief, intermittent interruptions,” Weldon said. “I don’t expect any long-term closings. We’ll keep the crosswind runway open, which should handle most aircraft that would come here. The main runway will remain open while the new one’s under construction, so that will help, too.”
FAA funding most work
Money hasn’t been a primary city consideration for this project – the FAA will fund most of it. But the city’s share will be significant.
Projected cost of the work is $18.8 million, of which the city will pay about 8 percent.
“That’s more than we originally planned,” Weldon said, the increase resulting from a cutback in federal spending levels. The city’s share will be funded through second-penny tax revenues.
Additionally, the city “will have to front 100 percent of the cost and then get reimbursed. That could be a cash flow issue, and I’m very concerned about it. If they can get grants to us on a timely basis – with a payment schedule of every couple of months – we’re going to be okay.”
Long lapses between payments could have the city scrambling for cash to pay its contractors.
All in all, “it’s not a bad deal,” Weldon said. “We wouldn’t be able to do these things without federal support.”
And it’s important for the community, Weldon says. Despite the fact that that Brookings has no scheduled commercial flights or Essential Air Service like other communities, the Brookings Regional Airport remains one of the state’s busiest – only Sioux Falls and Rapid City have more operations. That’s largely because of the active aviation training program at South Dakota State University.
“A lot of people may not think it (the airport) has a direct benefit for them, but I think people need to realize there is a strong indirect benefit,” Weldon explained.
“It’s important that we have a strong aviation training program for SDSU … And our corporate residents use the airport to varying degrees; I think we’ll see Bel Brands bring their corporate people in and out of area, and Dak and Larson both use it. It’s important for agriculture, too.
“A lot of people here may never go to a youth hockey game. I use the city pool maybe twice a year, but boy, I’m glad I live in a community where we’ve got those things. They add to the quality of life, and they have direct benefits for others in the community.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.