The push for sustainable growth: With plenty of assets to market, many agree north country should diversify for future economic development

Crews work on a new hangar last month at Watertown International Airport, Route 12F near Dexter. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Business

Crews work on a new hangar last month at Watertown International Airport, Route 12F near Dexter. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Business

The little airport that could

Since Jefferson County acquired Watertown International Airport in 2006, it has invested about $20 million, largely through federal and state funding, to improve and grow the facility, which has benefitted the community’s transportation needs and economic development, Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.

“[The airport] is not only a success from Jefferson County’s perspective, it’s a success for the community — people are investing local money and staying local,” he said.

In July, the airport tallied a record 4,036 passengers flying into and out of the airport, a 13 percent increase from 3,579 in July 2012. Before American Airlines took over passenger service, Cape Air flew nine-passenger twin prop planes to Albany. The numbers paled in comparison, tallying just 384 passengers flying into and out of the airport in July 2010.

If the airport records 10,000 enplanements for three consecutive years, its Federal Aviation Administration annual allocation for operations will increase from $150,000 to $1 million, Mr. Hagemann said, which the airport is well on pace to accomplish, nearly doubling that at the close of 2012.

The airport commenced service to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in November 2011 through American Eagle, American Airlines’ regional subsidiary, with a federal Department of Transportation subsidy, Essential Air Service, currently $3,047,972. American Eagle runs flights there twice a day during the week and once daily on the weekends. Long term, officials would like to see the airline operate in Watertown without a subsidy; in its new two-year contract application, American Airlines has asked for a $200,000 increase in the subsidy to start a second flight on Sunday.

“In terms of gauging the continued success of the airport, which means continuing opportunities for business development in the greater Watertown-Jefferson County-Thousand Islands region, those are critical numbers,” Mr. Hagemann said of increases annual ridership.

The airport is also in the midst of several capital improvement projects, with a key goal to enable American Airlines to move from 44-passenger jets to 50- or 60-passenger jets. Necessary for that is extending the airport’s runway by 1,000 feet, a $3.3 million project officials hope to complete within the next year that will be made possible by two grants that have enabled taxiway rehabilitation. The airport has initiated eminent domain proceedings to secure about 200 acres at the east and west ends of the runway for safety clearance necessary for the expansion, which could cost the county upwards of $175,000, according to rates outlined in August.

When American Airlines took over, the airport expanded the same eastern runway by 1,000 feet to accommodate the new jet service, Mr. Hagemann said.

“Sooner than later the likelihood of the 44-seater regional jet being in existence with major air carriers is slim because of the efficiency of the airplane itself,” Mr. Hagemann said. “It’s a practical reality in order to have the airport continue to grow.”

In September, the airport secured a $451,800 state grant to expand its terminal and free up an additional unused bathroom now blocked by TSA equipment, a project expected to commence this spring.
Beyond a second Sunday flight, opportunities for the airport’s growth, like adding another destination such as New York City or a southeastern or mid-Atlantic city such as Washington, D.C., are limitless, Mr. Hagemann said. The recent merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways opens up a broader menu of regional hubs and destinations, but the airport will continue to serve Chicago, as it caters well to Fort Drum, its largest client.

Many of the army’s training destinations only require one additional flight from Chicago, he said.

Mr. Hagemann attributed increased enplanement numbers in large part to more soldiers using the airport when flying elsewhere in the country for training.

Maj. Joshua T. Jacques, 10th Mountain Division’s deputy public affairs officer, agreed that the post is using the airport more, calling it “now a viable option.” The post requests Watertown and Syracuse for group travel and chooses the lower cost or the best availability. For larger group travel, it can also charter a plane from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, he said.

The airport has pretty well tapped the Fort Drum market, and is actively working to grow two others — Canadians and locals — through a significant marketing campaign in eastern Ontario and locally, Mr. Hagemann said.

“We have to make sure that the local population is very much aware of the travel potential out of Watertown,” he said.

The airport has seen an increase in Canadian traffic, but doesn’t track that data. A New York Times article in July reported that about five million Canadians cross the border each year to fly from U.S.-based airports. Mr. Hagemann said the airport aims to attract Canadians who are already flying out of the U.S. but driving to Syracuse to do so; flying out of the U.S. is appealing for Canadians because of the tax structure in Ontario and the fact that crossing the border is easier by land than by air, he said.

“Ultimately there’s going to be a cap on what our market is, but we’re nowhere near there yet,” he said. “We’re miles ahead of our business plan.”

To further propel success, the airport has hired Grant W. Sussey as a full-time airport manager. Mr. Sussey, 31, formerly director of Orange County Airport, Montgomery, holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from SUNY Oswego and is a licensed pilot and a certified flight instructor. The Jefferson County Board of Legislators created the position and an Airport Department in June. Mr. Sussey starts work Nov. 13, taking over from County Highway Superintendent James L. Lawrence Jr., who, along with an ad hoc airport committee, has been managing the airport in addition to other responsibilities since the county took over operations.

When the county did so, it turned its focus from maintaining the facility to investing time and money in infrastructure and expansion, Mr. Hagemann added. The county also acquired the airport’s FBO business in May 2012, which led to revenue from fuel sales flowing directly to the county. When revenues exceed expenses, the airport will be able to reinvest in itself for further growth, he said.

Capitalizing on the airport’s success: business park becoming a reality

Officials have pinned hopes for future economic impact on construction of an airport business park that, while still in its infancy, could mean as many as 1,000 new jobs over the next five to seven years. The largest obstacles are acquiring about 200 acres — JCIDA so far owns 45 and has another roughly 40 under contract — and building adequate infrastructure.

“We’re hot on the trail of trying to find additional acreage,” Mr. Alexander said. With 200 acres, costs could be spread across enough businesses that the county has a “reasonable chance of recouping the investment over time,” he said.

Rapidly decreasing space in the county’s existing corporate parks precipitated plans for an airport business park. So, too, did the idea that companies from outside the region might be attracted to locate near an airport for transportation of goods and people, Mr. Alexander said.

Two local companies have so far expressed interest in locating in the park, Mr. Alexander said. He also believes it could be attractive for companies from outside the county or the U.S. that could do business more cheaply in Jefferson County than in a larger metropolitan area.

The business park would have access to a town of Hounsfield water line, but would need sewer infrastructure. The town has applied for grant money to finance a feasibility study on the sewer district project, which would also benefit any future expansion at the airport, Mr. Alexander said.

A realistic number of businesses in the park is 10, he said, possibly half from outside the U.S., particularly Canadian companies seeking a toehold in the U.S. market.

“If we got 10 good companies that employ 100 or 150 people each as of just kind of a ballpark, we’d be well on our way to establishing the kind of thing that I’d like to see,” he said.

Mr. Hagemann called airport expansion and business park development projects that are on parallel paths, but that must be compatible.

“Given the development that’s taken place at the Watertown airport, there’s a lot of logic and synergy toward developing something that complements that type of activity,” he said. “It opens the door for businesses that are looking to expand their client base to areas they don’t service.”

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