The Slidell Municipal Airport is in the midst of a renaissance.
In the past year it has unveiled a $1.8-million runway extension and opened a $1-million emergency operations and terminal building.
Mayor Ben Morris says his goal is to make the airport, now used primarily for small-business and recreational flying, a major economic engine for the region. The recent additions and new projects will open the airport to all forms of general aviation traffic.
"It's a real positive for the city and parish, something that's been sorely lacking," Morris says. "It was basically a hobby airport before. It's been a work in progress and it's not over yet. "
In January Sam Carver was named the new airport manager while the previous manager, Bob Dunbar, became the mayor's chief of staff. Carver previously worked at the Tallahassee, Fla., Regional Airport, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., International Airport and Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., Regional Airport.
He says several large projects are slated for this year, including the construction of an $800,000 hangar and a new $4-million facility for St. Tammany Mosquito Abatement. The city also plans to increase the length of the runway an additional 1,000 feet to bring it to a total of 6,000 feet to accommodate the largest and heaviest corporate air traffic, but that is further down the road, Morris says.
The runway-taxiway extension was designed to make the airport more accessible to larger aircraft used by corporations, disaster relief and other agencies.
Unlike most airports in the New Orleans region, Slidell Municipal suffered minimal damage during the storm and was used by the military and rescue operations as a staging area.
The extension allowed about 98 percent of all general aviation craft, including some previously restricted from landing, to use the airport, Morris says. The longer runway also allows more businesses to use the airport as a stopping point on their way to major hub airports.
"This also allows people who want to do business to come in and when they come in they rent cars, eat in restaurants and stay in hotels," Morris says.
In addition to the runway expansion, last year the airport unveiled a new $1-million emergency operations center and terminal building outfitted with 5,000 square feet of conference rooms, pilot briefing and weather monitor sections, a full-service kitchen, restrooms with showers and a "war room" for emergency planning, communications and operations. The structure is designed to withstand the most severe weather conditions, which will allow the airport to continue in its role established during Katrina as a true emergency operations center.
The design and structure of the new building allows it to withstand winds of up to 150 mph and certain sections to shift along with the swirling gusts of a major tropical storm or hurricane, or in response to underground vibrations, and then slide back into place.
During the past four years, supported by the Slidell City Council, Morris and Dunbar raised about $8 million in mostly federal money for airport improvements.
In recent years the city spent millions improving the infrastructure and on pilot navigation aids, including the precision approach path indicator lighting system for flying in bad weather. These improvements were all leading up to the overall transformation of the airport, says Dunbar.
Slidell took over the airport in early 1990 at the request of parish government, which didn't have the money to upgrade the facility.
City officials soon began trying to get money to extend the old runway to 5,000 or more feet, a key to enhancing the airport's status and viability.
"We proved to our congressional team that we were serious and that this was not something we were doing as a sideline," Morris says. "They realized the economic benefits of having a viable airport in this area. "
Today, more than 100 planes are based at the airport. The facility has at least 20 buildings. Three are used by the city, one by the Civil Air Patrol and one by the National Weather Service. Others are leased to the parish mosquito control agency; a fixed-base operator that provides fuel; charter service; storage; flight instruction; maintenance and sales; and private hangar facilities.
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