On a Wing and Taxpayers: St. Cloud Has $5 Million Airport Terminal But No Place to Go

No Commercial Flights, But Airport Still Hoping to Land More Federal Funds

ST. CLOUD, MN—St. Cloud Regional Airport (STC) touts lots of amenities on its website—a café, ATM, free wi-fi, free parking and a $5 million completely renovated terminal whose capacity went up dramatically from 30 to 200 travelers. There's also a new $750,000 passenger boarding bridge secured with federal stimulus funds to keep travelers out of the elements while catching a flight. One asset, however, the newly renovated airport notably lacks—commercial flights and passengers.

"We're here to serve the public and serve them well and have adequate facilities," Bill Towle, airport director, told the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. "I would say the airport is a utility and we need adequate facilities to serve the public."

Currently, an average of about one charter flight a month with 130 or so passengers uses the eerily empty 9,000 square foot glass-fronted facility. Potential passengers checking the airport’s website are notified there’s “no commercial air service” available. Delta Connection flights between St. Cloud and Minneapolis were grounded at the end of 2009 due to weak customer demand. Both national rental car agencies pulled out of their airport offices months ago.

By then, it was too late. $3.125 million in federal aviation grants from user fees on fuel and tickets, $1.131 million in state airport funds, and $767,000 in local sales taxes were already spent on what's in danger of becoming a terminal project in more ways than one.

"One thing we did not see is that Delta was going to pull out of here. That was an absolute shock," Towle said. "We might not have done this improvement if we knew they were going to be gone."

Soon the six Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screeners based in St. Cloud will also depart, along with their high-tech, high-cost equipment. Assigned to other airports in the region for several months, the screeners have been offered jobs elsewhere.

“There’s no commercial flights, so there’s no need for screening,” said Luis Casanova, TSA spokesman. “We’re pulling our screeners out in November and at some point, the equipment will be moved, too.”

Not so long ago, federal, state, and local transportation planners envisioned the St. Cloud facility as a tier-two “reliever airport” to ease air traffic congestion into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, setting in motion the $5 million terminal upgrade and other spending for infrastructure improvements.

Officials forecast 25,000 or more commercial passengers would fly through STC in 2010 with a steady increase in traffic in future years, according to the project’s 2006 master plan. Without Delta, however, about 1,000 passengers have boarded a handful of Sun Country charter flights to a Nevada casino resort this year.

“We got all those numbers approved by the FAA. The likely growth if we continued even as a status quo put us at 26-27,000 enplanements a year,” Towle said.

The controversy refocuses attention on the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which some critics say too often results in misplaced priorities and aviation funding. In the last decade, St. Cloud Regional Airport has received more than $24 million in FAA airport improvement grants, including funding for the terminal project, according to OMB Watch, an online database that tracks government spending. Another national watchdog group indicates the St. Cloud airport received clearance for the terminal expansion despite the project's low ranking of 35 out of 100 on the FAA's own priority ratings scale. The FAA states the rating “is the first evaluation factor and serves to categorize airport development in accordance with agency goals and objectives."

Meantime, St. Cloud officials have launched an unusual campaign to attract another carrier, approaching local businesses for travel pledges in hopes of demonstrating significant local demand for air travel. With results falling short of the goal so far, the effort may depend on whether the city proves successful in obtaining a more familiar revenue stream--another $500,000 federal grant now under consideration at the FAA.

"Some of the ways we'd use that grant money would be to offset costs from start up of service," Towle said. "Additionally, if there's any losses at the beginning maybe we could help reduce the cost of those losses...and maybe also help with marketing."

Despite a shortage of commercial flights out of STC, there's no shortage in requests for federal dollars. Senator Al Franken's website lists a $500,000 earmark request for improved runway lighting for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, while Senator Amy Klobuchar's websitelists a $1,000,000 earmark request for the same project.

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Tips or feedback? Contact Tom Steward, FFM Investigative Director. 952-451-3684.

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