Along Came Baton Rouge

When Katrina hit, officials were already hot on revitalization — that was then.

Therein lies the focus of the Baton Rouge airport staff today — to them, it’s more like the revitalization program that keeps on wanting. The impression one gets on a visit here is, with that comes a sense of activity, of accomplishment, of loyalty to a director and a community, particularly the newcomers.
Always part of the Baton Rouge economic engine, the airport’s role has been magnified. It just so happens that by mid-2005 when Katrina made her visit, the airport had mentally positioned itself for energizing the community and capturing new opportunities. Timing or fate? It isn’t lagniappe, but it’s close.

Step one: a ‘cash cow’
The airport is overseen by a 13-member commission, four of which are state-elected officials along with the local mayor. The city council sits as airport authority and sponsor. “We keep officials focused on the airport,” says Marino. “It’s like [dealing with] Congress sometimes.”

By the mid-1990s, when Marino became director, the city was anxious to see the terminal enlarged and enhanced. Operating as an Enterprise Fund, the airport could expect no financial support. And, says Marino, the airlines had no interest in financing terminal reconstruction.

Since that time, Marino and his team have directed some $297 million worth of improvements, and another $100 million is in the works. It happened one step at a time.

Recalls Marino, “In the latter part of 1996 we started rolling. We knew we had to find a cash cow, and that was the first parking garage. We had to find a way of securing some money — not having debt on the garage, it would be the cash cow to support other revenue bonds.

“We ended up with 13 funding sources to pay for this terminal building. If you’re going to do $297 million in about nine years, 80-something projects, you’d better come up with some creative ways of doing it.”

The airport also instituted a $4.50 passenger facility charge for the terminal project as well as a $3.25/day customer facility charge to build a new rental car facility adjacent to the terminal.

Marino points out that $184 million of the projects were in process pre-Katrina. “It wasn’t done for Katrina,” he says. “We had all this wonderful new capacity — in one day, it’s gone.”

The airport is also seeking other sources of revenue, evidenced by a recent agreement to lease 112 acres to Coca Cola for a distribution plant. And, it continues to seek opportunities in the MRO (maintenance/repair/overhaul) market. It currently hosts a Delta regional jet maintenance facility, which is growing, and is working to put in an on-airport A&P technician school to feed that labor segment.

In January, the airport announced another $100 million for construction, much of it focused on airfield upgrades. BTR officials have submitted a letter of intent application with FAA for $40 million.

Comments Ralph Hennessy, assistant director, “We had completed a master plan in 2004. Traffic forecasts were mainly for an RJ fleet. As a result of the hurricane, we started getting a lot more mainline aircraft. FedEx started coming in with their Airbus’s. We had military aircraft coming in — C-17s, C-5s. All that weight accelerated what had been projected as a need in five years to two years.” Projects include reconstruction of the primary runway, four taxiways, an ILS, and more airfield accommodation for business aviation that has relocated from New Orleans.

Making it attractive to airlines
Baton Rouge Metropolitan recently welcomed its first low-fare carrier, Frontier, which is flying direct to Denver International. The airport put together a $1 million incentive package, much of it centered on rent concessions and marketing. BTR’s annual marketing budget is $500,000.

To quell concerns in the community about subsidizing a new entrant, the airport contracted with Louisiana State University, based here, to uncover the economic impact of adding the low-fare airline.

Says Marino, “Their investment to come to Baton Rouge — equipment, allocation of resources — is $9.8 million. They make a substantial investment to the community. The community has to step up.

“We haven’t stopped with low-fare; now we have to look to the east.”

Marino emphasizes the need to keep costs reasonable to the carriers while maintaining a level of service. Thus, the airport controls all gates and provides all furnishings, ticket counters, and flight displays.

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