Hammond Officials See Growing Airport as Asset

HAMMOND - With more than $100 million in improvements coming into the Hammond Northshore Regional Airport during the next few years, the regional airport is poised for growth.

A majority of the new investment into the airport is coming from the Louisiana Army National Guard, which is moving an aviation support unit from the New Orleans Lakefront Airport to the Hammond airport, which is farther inland. The Guard expects to spend $110 million to build hangars, offices and other buildings for its operations there.

On a slightly smaller scale, but nevertheless important, the airport secured money in recent years from the Federal Aviation Administration to improve runways, said Jason Ball, airport director. A $2.2 million project to resurface and strengthen the longer of the airport's two runways should begin in a couple weeks, Ball said.

A project to lengthen the runway from 5,000 feet to 6,500 feet was completed in 2004, Ball said.

The types of planes that can land at an airport depends on the length of a runway and how much weight it can handle. The extra length of the runway gave the airport the ability to handle planes such as the small commercial jets that fly into the Baton Rouge Metro Airport, Ball said.

The project to strengthen the longer runway will allow it to handle 65,000 single-wheel pounds. That runway is now limited to 15,000 wheel pounds, he said.

Wheel pounds is a measurement of how much weight is put on each wheel of an airplane as it lands, which determines how large an aircraft can land at the airport, Ball said.

When completed this summer, the resurfacing project would give the runway the ability to handle some Boeing 737 aircraft, the military's C-130 turboprops or the Airbus A-320s, he said.

The jets that Southwest Airlines uses for flights out of the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner could land in Hammond after the resurfacing project, Ball said. However, Boeing 747 planes or the military C-17s that can land in New Orleans still won't be able to land in Hammond, he said.

But don't expect to see passenger service at the Hammond airport, Hammond Mayor Mayson Foster said.

"It makes absolutely no sense to have a passenger airline," he said.

Located less than an hour's drive from the large passenger airports serving the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, the Hammond airport would be hard-pressed to compete against them, the mayor said.

The extra security measures for airline travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., also make offering passenger service out of Hammond problematic, Foster said.

Instead, the Hammond airport will focus on attracting more cargo business, Foster said. Its location near the junction of Interstates 12 and 55 as well as major railroad lines makes air cargo a more natural fit, he said. Plus, the security measures for cargo traffic are not as stringent as for passenger travel, he said.

Bob Basford, the executive director of the Tangipahoa Parish Economic Development Foundation, agrees that air transport is the best goal for the airport. He said that the company officials he talks to about moving to the parish see the Hammond Northshore Regional Airport as an asset for locating in the Hammond-Tangipahoa area.

Tangipahoa Parish already is home to several commercial distribution centers that use the Hammond airport in their business operations, Basford said. Wal-Mart has one of the distribution centers in Robert and Winn-Dixie has one in Hammond. Home Depot has a lumber distribution center near the Hammond airport and a plumbing distribution center in Ponchatoula. Cardinal Medical has a medical supply distribution center located across the street from the Hammond airport.

"We absolutely have prospects that looked at and came to the area because of that airport," Basford said.

The new military installation alone will bring more interest in residential development in the area and smaller businesses to support its operations near the Hammond airport, Basford said.

"What we believe is going to happen with the military moving in is that it's going to start the growth, or help the growth, of the east side of Hammond," Foster said. "It will bring a focus to our new business park at the airport exit."

The city has two industrial-business parks near the airport that are run by its two economic development arms.

Part of Basford's and Foster's confidence comes from history. When U.S. Customs and Border Protection located its Southeastern United States air operations at the Hammond airport in 2002, more businesses began to indicate an interest in the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration gave it higher priority for improvement projects such as the recent runway improvements, Foster said.

Officials of at least one business, Blessey Marine, told airport officials that the airport became more attractive to them when U.S. Customs arrived, Ball said. Blessey Marine, which stations its jets at the Hammond airport in connection with its tugboat services along the Mississippi River, set up near the U.S. Customs facility to connect to the ramp the federal agency installed and to be near a federal facility with tight security.

Basford said that with the Louisiana National Guard facility coming to Hammond airport, it is likely the FAA would look more favorably at any requests to fund future improvements to the airport.

Planned changes in how the airport is managed also may help it grow. The city of Hammond controls the operations of the airport, spending about $340,000 a year on maintenance, utilities and salaries of the airport's small administrative staff. All capital improvements have come from FAA and state funds.

The City Council must approve every lease at the airport, which is a process that can take up to 60 days, Foster said. The council must introduce an ordinance at one meeting and then hold a public hearing and vote on a final version of that ordinance at a second meeting.

The city is working on a plan to delegate its authority to approve market-rate leases to the Hammond Airport Authority, which now serves solely as an advisory board, Foster said.

Any lease that is based on a market rate could be approved by the board, which could meet on 24 hours' notice to approve a lease, Foster said. Leases such as the one awarded to the Louisiana National Guard for $1 a year for 99 years will still need council approval.

A preliminary analysis to determine what the market rate of land at the airport should be was given to the city, Foster said. But the analysis was sent back for further study because the rate seemed too high for the area, Foster said.

The preliminary report gave the airport a rate of 18 cents per square foot, Foster said. The airport now charges 12 cents per square foot to lease land, he said.

What makes him question the report is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted its own market study on the airport to determine rent on a tract of airport property for hurricane evacuee trailers, Foster said. FEMA's rate is 10 cents per square foot, and Foster said that FEMA is not known for giving low rates.

FEMA is seeking a contract to place trailers on the airport property for military personnel only, Foster said. The FAA would not allow anyone else to live on the airport property because the agency believes having someone without aircraft training would be a safety hazard, Foster said.

Hurricane Katrina seems to be accelerating the airport's growth in some respects, but officials said the airport was going to grow anyway.

"I feel as though the storm served as a catalyst to speed up the growth we had already anticipated for the parish," Basford said.

The military had contacted the Hammond airport about relocating operations there before Katrina struck Louisiana on Aug. 29.

"Before the hurricane, they had approached us about moving a military group here," Ball said. "After the hurricane, it became a reality that they wanted to move. Hammond looked really high and dry."

The military has indicated an interest beyond the Guard unit that is coming to the airport, Foster and Ball said. Foster said the city will be protective of its remaining land and may have to look at helping the military secure other land for any future use there. Foster said he could not disclose what those plans are because the military asked that its plans not be disclosed until they become final.

The hurricane also spurred more use of the airport as a place for aircraft to land or refuel. Before Aug. 29, the airport had about 100 operations - either a takeoff or landing - a day. The usage skyrocketed to about 800 operations a day in September, but since has declined to about 120 to 130 a day in January, Ball said.

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