Tool for the City

May 8, 1999

Tool For The City

Lake Charles, LA, is revitalizing itself via economic development, and a key element is Chennault Int'l

BY John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

May 1999

LAKE CHARLES, LA — In the past two years, the Chennault International Airport here has seen airport operations grow by 145 percent (33,500 in 1998). But then, this is an airport still defining its market niche, and one which only began its rebirth in the mid-80s.

Max Jones, executive director, Chennault Int'l Airport Authority, brought with him a career in market development — not aviation.

All the pieces are now coming into place for this former Strategic Air Command base to become a dynamic economic generator for the genteel Southern community and petrochemical center that is Lake Charles. For years a major deep water port connecting Southwest Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico, the city now has an additional catalyst to attract new business and create jobs.

It was initially opened as the Chennault Industrial Airpark with the intent of making the airport a cog surrounded by industry. It was renamed an International Airport to build on the global economy and associated dramatic cargo growth that has evolved in the world marketplace since the mid-1980s.

"Our job is economic development for the region," explains Steven Harvey, director of operations and maintenance for Chennault. "That's our main objective for being here."

Says executive director Max Jones, "We are confident that we will lure new people to this airport. We are focusing on international business, specifically air cargo. Airborne Express is already here, and we have the initiative with the Foreign Trade Zone and the opening up of some markets in Central and South America."

As the 1990s come to a close, Chennault and the city are getting in position to experience significant growth, much of it spurred by the economic resurgence successful riverboat casinos have brought to the area. And, they are looking toward the pending results on a regional study which is intended to help them more clearly define how the local airport system fits into that process. Along with that, officials at Chennault are expecting to get their first Airport Improvement Program grant from FAA, a welcome financial relief for a facility which is used to relying on the state and its own revenues to finance airport development.

Chennault's Southern style administrative offices opened in mid-1998.

An emphasis on paying its own way
Since receiving an initial multimillion dollar grant from the state to start up Chennault, the airport has been charged with paying its own way. Its current annual operations budget is $6 million, according to Jones, with one-third of the revenue generated from the major tenant, Northrop Grumman. Another $3 million comes from a parish-wide ad valorem (property) tax.

Chennault has funded much of the airport development to date, including a $700,000 FBO terminal/hangar facility and fuel farm. Chennault Jet Center pays a 6 cent/gallon flowage fee and $2,000/month for the fuel farm, a fixed square foot rate on the terminal, and a square foot rate plus percentage of gross for the hangar.

Northrop Grumman Corporation leases 157 acres and employs some 2,000 at its Chennault location. Airborne Express operates a sort facility, feeding one daily DC-9 flight.

The control tower is operated under private contract with Serco Aviation Services, costing the airport $230,000 per year. The ILS was installed and is maintained by the airport, and an Automated Weather Observation Station is in the final stages of installation and was funded by the authority. The airport also operates and finances a complete aircraft rescue and firefighting facility.

"We have not been supported by AIP grant money at any time," explains Jones. "We think we will have some AIP opportunities this year, however." The primary target for that money is the stormwater drainage system, which will cost $1.2 million just to get the project started.

A Regional Study
The storied history of aviation in Lake Charles saw the military play a major role in the 1950s, leading the city to build nearby Regional Airport for commercial service. By 1961, the military had changed its mind and abandoned Chennault. When officials sought to make it a tool for economic development, they first had to recondition the facility. "There was nothing here but forest and an old runway," recalls Harvey. "And we had to dig the forest out to get to the runway."

The reconditioned 10,700x200-ft. runway has proved an attractive lure for government training contracts, and is being marketed along with a 37-acre industrial park the Chennault Authority is developing. In addition, the Port Authority is developing some 300 acres east of the airport, and the entire site is connected to the interstate highway system and major rail lines. There are also a host of economic incentive packages that have been put together, led by the state's classifying it as an economic development district and the FTZ.

A key element in defining the aviation future here may be a study commissioned to analyze all four airports in Calcasieu Parish, which includes two general aviation facilities. It is being paid for by the parish, the chamber, the city, and the authority. The regional airport declined to participate.

Explains Harvey, "If the people in the area want to have an air carrier airport (at Regional), a cargo transport airport here, and two GA airports, so be it, if they want to pay for them. If they don't want that, then we want them to tell us what they do want. We can do anything at Chennault.

"The question is: How do you want us to economic develop? Then, let us all move along together."

Jones sees the finalization of the foreign trade zone as a catalyst, because it will be tied to the Port's FTZ. "Local industry has a need for the zone because they do export/import," he says. "Our zone is projected to be more than petrochemical. Medical and research and development firms have expressed an interest once the zone is complete."