Port set to take reins at St. John airfield

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2008


Editor and Publisher

LAPLACE — The new Hubbard administration in St. John government has confirmed yet another pending change for the parish that had languished for years without action.

After years of talking about the possibility of the Port of South Louisiana taking over control of the St. John Airport, L’Observateur confirmed this week that the parish expects such a change to occur within the next few months.

Parish President Bill Hubbard, who previously served for eight years on the board of the Port of South Louisiana, began serious talks with the Port in recent months to try and get things moving so the Port could take control of the airport.

The move had been discussed for years by St. John officials, but no action was ever taken.

Hubbard said that he and Port of South Louisiana Executive Director Joel Chaisson Sr. had meetings in recent months that led to a tentative agreement for the shift. Attorneys are currently drawing up the legal documentation that would effect such a change.

If approved by both sides, the Port would begin managing the St. John Airport operations, and lead the way for the much-needed runway extension—something else that has been talked about for many years.

“For the entire eight years I was on the board, the idea of having the Port run the airport was discussed,” Hubbard said. “But quite frankly, the previous administration and the council just never could work it out. Mr. Chaisson and I are both movers and shakers, and we just got together and got it done.”

Hubbard, since taking over as parish president this past January, has made it a point to take charge of one project after another and push it through. The airport management is another example of a long list of projects that have now been dealt with.

Should the Port take over management of the airport, it should open the door to rapid action on getting the 1,000-foot runway extension, as well as bring a number of businesses to the airport property. The runway is presently 4,000-feet long, but cannot accommodate larger planes.

“We have always wanted to have control of the airport since it’s just a logical move for us,” Chaisson said. “We already have a big hand in bringing businesses to this area, and this now gives us a chance to improve the situation at the airport so we can draw more businesses to the region. That means economic stimulus, as well as jobs for the area.”

The Port is already on its way to getting the runway extension done, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Louisiana Legislature that is funding the environmental impact study, which is already underway.

“That is our first step to get the runway extension, and we couldn’t have done it without the money from the Legislature,” Chaisson said.

And Hubbard added that “the money for something like that comes a lot easier when an entity like the Port seeks it from the Legislature. That’s just one way it will work better for everyone when the Port is operating the airport.”

Additionally, the parish has been losing between $70,000 and $100,000 a year just operating the airport, since it has not been a money-making operation. Once the Port takes it over, the loss will be wiped out.

Should the pending deal go through, the Port will essentially lease the property from the parish—since St. John owns all the land in that area—and begin making all the decisions to manage the airport operations.

That will also include leasing more of the land surrounding the airport.

“St. John will get to share in all the opportunities the airport brings us,” Hubbard added. “But the change will be a big benefit for St. John for several reasons. Any company that comes will bring more jobs and more tax revenue for us, and that will certainly increase when we get the runway extended.”

Not only is 1,000 feet expected to be added to the length, but Chaisson said they also want to increase it by 25 feet in width, which will not allow the biggest commercial airliners to land, but will allow much larger corporate jets, as well as cargo planes that are big enough to carry one or two containers.

“We already have been asked for quite a while by a number of companies about extending our runway so they could do more business here,” Chaisson said.

The Port director said a number of aviation-related businesses have expressed interest in relocating to the St. John Airport if it was a longer runway.

Chaisson said he hopes the runway extension, which will cost close to $3 million, can be finished in no longer than 18 months. The Port has to go through FAA approval, not to mention getting the funds to build it. But he believes the money will be found someplace soon if everything else is in place.

The St. John Airport would also become attractive for some corporations to keep their smaller jets here since Lakefront Airport has experienced a huge increase in their insurance premiums, all hurricane related after recent huge storms have hit the area.