Anoka County-Blaine Airport expansion changes in preparation for GOP convention

Expansion for the Anoka County-Blaine Airport changed flight plans Tuesday - and backers hope it's just in time to showcase the place during the Republican National Convention next fall.

The old plan - ratified a little more than two years ago - wasn't working and wasn't going to work, officials involved acknowledge.

So on Tuesday, Anoka County Commissioners and a re-formed private partnership aiming to expand the airport reached an agreement on how to move forward.

It's a more modest plan. Instead of setting an ambitious goal of an airport that 10 years from now could handle all sorts of planes, the new plan calls for a quick burst of construction targeted toward corporate jets - the same types of planes that could be diverted from St. Paul's Holman Field during the 2008 GOP Convention, to be held in the Twin Cities in September.

Speculation that Holman Field, which handles the bulk of the area's corporate jet landings, could face frequent flight restrictions during the convention has fueled enthusiasm in Anoka County that Blaine will see a spike in small-jet traffic.

"We don't know yet, but that's a possibility," said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns and operates the metro's airports. MAC generally discourages small corporate jets from using Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to avoid crowding the airspace needed by commercial airlines.

But the airport in Blaine isn't really ready for such a spike.

"Anoka County (airport) has a poor reputation among pilots of corporate jets," said Joel Le-Vahn, an attorney and one of four partners in Anoka Airport Development LLC, which is partnering with Anoka County to expand the airport. The paved areas around the runways are too uneven, and the airport - the metro's third largest in terms of land - lacks the hangars, offices and amenities corporate pilots are accustomed to, he said.

"We really want to be open (by the convention) so when people are forced to land in Anoka, they have an enjoyable experience, one they'll remember," LeVahn said.

The goal is to build a hangar-and-office complex in time. It's a tall order.

The new plan needs approval from MAC, which could vote on the idea at its Nov. 19 meeting at the earliest. LeVahn said the designs will then need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which often takes several months to examine such projects.

"If we can't finalize everything by December, we'll have a problem," he said.

The county has been taking out taxpayer-backed loans for several years to make such improvements as extending a runway, shoring up the peat-filled earth and dealing with ramifications for the site's wetlands. The county's next job - expanding and paving taxiways and plane parking areas - is scheduled to be completed in July. The county already has sold $19.1 million in bonds and plans to sell another $2 million in the spring.

Much of those taxpayer-guaranteed loans were part of the original agreement inked in 2005. They were supposed to have led to results, but an attempt to solicit bidders on a hangar-and-office complex last year failed. Commissioner Scott LeDoux, who chairs the Airport Committee, acknowledged it was all premised on a flawed business plan.

"The original plan was written without any forethought," he said Tuesday.

But in the past year, four of the Anoka Airport Development partners have bought out the interests of the more than a dozen original partners; those four are responsible for the change in course.

The re-formed partnership has won the confidence of commissioners, including LeDoux. "We're expecting very exciting things to happen in the next nine months."

Dave Orrick can be reached at dorrick@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2171.


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