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Five-year investment plan puts Auburn-Lewiston Airport on a flight path of growth

BY Maureen Milliken

5/28/2018
Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Rick Lanman, manager of the Auburn-Lewiston Airport, says the airport is a 'quiet little economic generator.

In 2006, a master plan was completed for the Auburn-Lewiston Airport that laid out what had to be upgraded and added, and what the future could hold for the former Navy air base.

“It's a really good master plan,” says Airport Manager Rick Lanman.

The 20-year plan shows what it will take to “develop the airport into what it's capable of,” he says.

But little of the plan has been implemented in the last 12 years.

Lanman, who became manager in 2012, has spent the time since getting the airport to the point where the master plan goals can be addressed.

The airport, which is jointly owned by the two cities, is the second-busiest in the state after Sanford, with 52,000 landings last year, driven by private aircraft and a nearby UPS customer center. Lanman and area leaders say there's potential for it to become much more.

“[It's] a quiet little economic generator,” Lanman says. “We're doing a good job of doing what we're supposed to do, but we have enormous capacity and are using a fraction of it.”

To upgrade, the airport will invest $8.7 million over the next two years and a total of $11 million through 2023. The airport is an overlooked asset, says Rebecca Swanson Conrad, president and CEO of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and a member of the airport board of directors.

“The airport and the surrounding area are ideally situated to become an even greater economic hub and improved gateway to the community, if developed thoughtfully,” she says.

She says that includes attracting business and residents to the region.

“Increasingly, time is money in business,” she says. “Having access to charter service or your own plane and being within a short drive to an airport is something we should market.”

From Lanman's position, a lot of what needs to be done isn't sexy — upgrading the localizer at the end of the main runway, for instance, and adding storage hangars — but it's necessary to get to the type of things that people can understand, like onsite retail and a hotel.

“We have a chance to generate more of an economic benefit to the community,” he says. “At the same time, we have to develop [infrastructure] ... to make it happen.”

The airport has a $1.5 million yearly operating budget, and gets a subsidy from the two cities. This year it's requesting $172,000.

Lanman estimates the airport generates about $25 million in the L/A economy, everything from car rentals, meals and lodging, to the Lifeflight air ambulance based there, cargo traffic and business done in the area. UPS has a large customer center right outside the airport's gates and runs flights out of the airport nine times a week.

Its proximity to the airport “enables the latest possible cutoff time for drop offs prior to the evening flight departures,” says Jim Mayer, spokesman for UPS Airlines. “[The flights] are very important because they connect the region with UPS's global air network.”

The airport was once a Navy training base, an auxiliary to the larger Brunswick Naval Air Station. It was decommissioned in 1946, and Auburn and Lewiston took it over as a nonprofit corporation in 1979. It's run by a nine-member board of directors with representatives from both cities, as well as the chamber of commerce and the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.

In the past, commercial airlines have flown out of the airport, but Lanman says that type of business isn't on the airport's radar.

Corporate, private and cargo traffic, which lease tie-downs, pay landing fees and buy fuel, are the airport's customers.

“To build more of that is what we're focusing on,” he says.

To that end, the immediate focus of the airport is to upgrade the two runways, including a new localizer at the end of the main runway. The device allows horizontal guidance for instrument landings. The current one is from the late 1990s, and is in a depression in the earth. When the snow gets high, it's not readable at all.

Both runways need upgrades, as do parking lots and equipment, and Lanman says there is critical need for short-term hangar space, so that planes aren't outdoors in the weather.

“Some goals are imperceptible to a lay person, but they're important,” he says.

The infrastructure upgrades lead to more customers, which means more revenue, which means that the airport can invest more into things that will make it sustainable.

The long-term goal is to make it self-supporting and not require the money from the two cities.

Conrad, of the chamber, agrees self-sufficiency is a key, and says getting the word out about what the airport has to offer is also part of the overall plan.

“We need to promote the option of flying into our airport for a business or pleasure trip,” she says.

She represents the chamber's business development programs on the airport board, and says she sees the chamber playing a role in the airport's move toward self-sufficiency, which will allow greater flexibility for growth.

That includes promoting the airport locally, as well as away.

“I'd say externally the airport is better known than internally within the community,” she says. “Certainly the families from all over the country that bring their kids to camp or college know it's a great airport.”

The third weekend in July last year, the airport sold more than 13,000 gallons of jet fuel, 900 gallons of Avgas when 103 aircrafts with more than 300 passengers landed. As with most of the state's airports, “camper's weekend,” when parents fly in to pick up or drop off kids to Maine's summers camps, is a boost.

Conrad says that those weekends have a significant impact on hotels and restaurants, but it's just one weekend.

“We need to market the potential and encourage development, but we also need to be creative and bold in our thinking, she says, adding that the high number of business and corporate landings, as well as private landings, create an economic multiplier across the region

The airport in 2012 expanded the terminal building to make it more comfortable for travelers and to add office space. Its restaurant, Backwoods BBQ, opened in 2016, a second location for then Center Street Auburn eatery. There is also a Hertz rental car agency. She says other travel-friendly amenities would complement those.

One idea would be an on-site hotel, Lanman says.

Conrad says a fly-in boutique hotel “would distinguish our local airport as one of only a few in the country where you could land, have dinner and spend the night steps from your own plane.”

The airport is losing a major tenant. Lufthansa announced in February that the Super Star Constellation being restored in a large hangar there will be sent back to Germany. The project currently employs 70 people at the hangar.

Lanman said he may be ready to announce a new tenant in the near future. The heated 50,000-square-foot hangar the company built for the restoration “wasn't going to go empty,” Lanman says.

Demand for hangar space is one of the biggest challenges the airport faces and providing it will help take it to the next level.

While Portland International Jetport, Bangor, and some other airports in Maine have commercial service, most of the state's airports are competing other types of business.

“If your flight is scheduled [in southern Maine], Portland is your airport,” Lanman said. “If not, you've got choices, and we want to be the one chosen.”

Word of mouth and customer experience drive much of the private and corporate airport business, and much of that is driven by customer service and the condition of the infrastructure.

“Pilots say, 'Yeah, that's a good airport.' You want to have a good reputation,” he says. “That has to be the draw, and everything else follows.”