By Anna Jauhola
Karlstad is one step closer to beginning construction on an airport with a 4,000-foot runway southeast of the city, straddling the Kittson/Marshall county line.
The city held a public update meeting on Monday, Sept. 25, which about 25 people from the public attended. Mayor Dale Nelson went through the project timeline, where funding has come from, land sales and gave more specifics on the financial forecast for the airport itself.
“It’s been a process. It’s the longest infrastructure project I’ve been involved with,” Nelson said.
In the 2023 legislative session, the Capital Improvement Appropriations bill included $3.9 million for the Karlstad airport project. This is a full grant that will help the city complete land acquisition, pre-design and design of the project, engineering and construction of the runway. The $5.6 million state appropriation through the transportation budget in 2021 covered a good majority of that work, but more was needed to complete up through Phase 1.
The city of Karlstad began pursuing this project to build a new airport with a longer runway in 2017. Bollig Inc. is the engineering firm in charge of the project. The current airport is on the southwest edge of Karlstad, has a 2,600-foot grass runway and can only accommodate light aircraft. The runway cannot be extended due to the proximity of high-voltage power lines and Minnesota Highway 11 to the south, and a township road to the north, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Michael Johnston, a Karlstad resident, asked for clarification on these reasons for not expanding the current airport. He insisted the power lines could be buried and the township road could have been rerouted. Kris Ambuehl, director of client development with Bollig, reiterated the safety issues of high voltage power lines and the runway’s proximity to state Highway 11.
“The state, through MnDOT Aviation, they don’t want to stick any money into an airport that has safety issues,” Ambuehl said. “If they’re going to stick any large dollar amount into an airport they want all the safety issues fixed, and the No. 1 safety issue is Highway 11.”
He added that MnDOT specifically funded the site selection study in 2019 because Highway 11 is such a safety concern. At both ends of any runway is an extended area called a runway protection zone (RPZ). That requirement wasn’t in place when the current airport was built approximately 70 years ago, and with Highway 11 so close, the city cannot meet that RPZ requirement. While Ambuehl conceded power lines can be moved, he reiterated that the current runway will never meet RPZ requirements through MnDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“So it wasn’t just about moving (the airport) or just about power lines, it was about meeting MnDOT and FAA guidelines with the money they were willing to stick into the airport,” Ambuehl said.
The new runway’s RPZ is currently impeded by 110th Street to the north, which is proposed to be rerouted or closed. Nelson acknowledged that portion of the project is not funded yet and Rep. John Burkel is working on funding.
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Another obstacle mentioned was towers. Ambuehl said the site selection study had to take into account any towers in the area – the only tower being Karlstad’s water tower. Any existing towers didn’t affect the sites selected for a new airport.
Nelson said the project will be completed in two phases. Phase 1, which is on track to be bid out in spring 2024 with possible construction in the summer or fall, will consist only of grading and drainage improvements.
“That is the part that’s been funded at the current time through legislation,” Nelson said. “The council has approved that – drainage improvements and an aggregate base. At the point we’re done with that, then we’d be ready for asphalt.”
Angela Holm, aviation division lead/architect with Bollig, said Phase 1 would not make the airport operational. However, the city would still be in compliance with their grant contracts as they will have completed all requirements of those contracts.
To move on to Phase 2, which includes paving and electrical work, the city is working with state legislators, Rep. John Burkel and Sen. Mark Johnson, to secure funding during the 2024 legislative session. Terry Soldtvedt, of Karlstad, asked during the meeting what happens if the city doesn’t get that funding.
“We’ll have to wait,” Nelson said.
Nelson shared the airport financial forecast with the crowd as well, showing estimated annual expenses and revenue both with and without tenants at the airport. The current plan does not call for hangars or a terminal, and instead will feature tie downs for airplanes that land in Karlstad.
The annual estimated expenses will be about $24,500.
“That’s based on lighting, curb work, security checks, paving, crack filling, snow removal and mowing hours,” Nelson said.
With reimbursement from MnDOT up to 75 percent of $25,000, plus cropland leases and aerial applicator rent, minus tenants, the city will gain $29,135 in annual estimated revenue.
With the same reimbursements above, plus tenants for private hangars and tie downs, the annual estimated income for the airport is $86,159.
So either way, the city is estimated to have a profit each year with or without building hangars or a terminal.
Johnston asked who will be building the hangars and whether there’s a plan for where hangars will reside. Nelson said likely individuals would build their own hangars and rent that property space from the city, much like people do with property along the railroad in town. Ambuehl said hangar location is a part of the airport layout plan.
“You have to figure in where everything goes,” Ambuehl said. “That’s why MnDOT wants those plans done that way so you can factor in for potential expansion. You always lay it out for much more than you’re putting in there.”
Holm added that the airport is not required to have based aircraft – or aircraft that lives at the airport – in order to be licensed.
Danny Johnson, of Karlstad, asked whether larger airplanes can land at the new airport. Holm replied small, light jets will be the largest to land on the completed runway.
“Similar to where MnDOT requires you to look into safety requirements and things like that, this has also been designed so if you want to expand you don’t have to move it again,” Ambuehl said. “You can expand in this place. That’s part of the site selection study. It’s a requirement from their side that you look at not only today’s needs but future needs as well.”
The plans include ultimate planning for a 4,700-foot by 100-foot runway.
Johnson also asked how much landowners have received for their land sold to build the airport. Ambuehl and Holm said they did not have the numbers with them, but Ambuehl looked up the numbers while other discussion continued. He found one example of 271 acres purchased for $780,562; while all land purchased for the project has amounted to $1,332,000. During the meeting, neither had total acreage purchased for the project. Holm followed up with the Enterprise via email stating land purchases were totally funded with state dollars, with no cost to the city of Karlstad, and purchased 470 acres.
Johnson also asked how many wetland banking credits are needed for the project, considering the airport is being built in a swampy area and is affecting some wetlands. Holm followed up via email, stating the project requires 37.65 acres of wetland bank credits to be purchased. In a follow-up email from Holm, she said the city received a grant from the state for $790,600 based on earlier estimated costs for wetland banking credits.
In the meeting she stated each wetland credit costs $17,500; she clarified, in addition to that cost, the grant will also cover banking costs of withdrawal fee, stewardship fee, and wetland delineation.
“This grant may have more money in it than the city actually needs, but that is still being determined as we work things out with the Corps of Engineers,” Holm said in an email. “If the total cost is less than the $790,600 grant, any leftover money not needed for this activity will then go back to the State to be used for airport construction. If it is slightly more than $790,600, then the grant is amended to cover that cost. The resulting expense to the City is still the same – $0.”
In all over the last seven years, the city’s cost in this project has been $22,039 for matching funds to complete the feasibility study, site selection study, airport layout plan and airport zoning costs.
By Anna Jauhola