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Airport taking off

An airport project that has been in the works for 11 years is finally about to come to fruition.

Bids were opened Tuesday for the first phase of a runway safety zone extension that will ultimately result in the Suffolk Executive Airport being able to accommodate larger planes. Also in the works are improvements to the storm water drainage system and an additional storage and maintenance building.

“The Federal Aviation Administration has come out and mandated that in order to handle the bigger corporate jet airplanes, we have to have 1,000 feet of cleared area at the end of the runway,” airport manager Kent Marshall said.

To accommodate the regulation, the airport will move its 5,005-foot runway roughly 600 feet to the northeast. Its current location would not have worked, because it would require closing or re-aligning Meadow Country Road.

The project is important, because it helps the airport fulfill its stated goal of providing aviation services for the businesses that operate in the city, Marshall said. Large retailers, distributors, manufacturers and other outfits in the city rely on the Suffolk airport to serve corporate personnel and clients coming into town.

“Being able to handle larger airplanes takes us up a notch in our economic development efforts,” Marshall said. “When companies come looking at Suffolk, having an airport doesn’t guarantee they’re going to locate here, but not having one guarantees they won’t.”

Local funding for the project equals only about 2 percent of the total cost of the project. The state is supplying 3 percent, and the Federal Aviation Administration will provide 95 percent.

Simple preparation for the runway’s move took several years, Marshall said. Wetlands and other approvals were needed, and the airport needed to acquire several tracts of land from individual owners.

“It took six years to get all the land in our name,” Marshall said.

Phase 1 of the project, with an estimated cost of $1.5 million, is expected to begin soon. Of 11 bids, at least two came in under the estimated cost, Marshall said.

Phase 1 involves moving the fill dirt and putting in compacted dirt. Phase 2 should begin around this time next year and will involve paving the runway, installing lights and paving a parallel 600-foot taxiway.

The entire project should be completed sometime in late 2012 or 2013, Marshall said.

In addition, the airport recently completed storm water drainage improvements and will soon add a storage and maintenance building for tractors and other equipment.

“We have projects going on all over the place,” Marshall said.

About 80 aircraft are hangared at the Suffolk airport, in addition to five businesses that are based there. The facility averages about 1,500-1,600 takeoffs and landings each month.