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The Baxter County Airport’s multi-million dollar upgrade continues to chug along.
In a presentation to the Baxter County Quorum Court Tuesday evening, Board of Commissioners Chair Dr. Steven Vester gave updates on the airport’s major runway extension project.
The project, which began in 2022, is expected to upgrade the county’s airport runway by 1000 feet with a 1500-foot displacement, making way for the airport to begin receiving commercial flights again.
“We are continuing to follow our mandate to further develop the airport for general aviation purposes, and of course, the ultimate goal of that is to continue to begin to provide commercial service to our community,” said Dr. Vester during his presentation. “We continue to get calls all the time from the public asking, what’s the status of this? Where can I go? How can I get there? We have well established that the demand exists.”
During his presentation, Dr. Vester said that the airport had moved its perimeter fence back in preparation for the runway expansion. He also said that the airport had made progress in removing a number of obstructions on the approaches for the runway.
The majority of the obstructions were trees that the FAA had identified as hazards that needed to be taken care of.
In December 2022, the Quorum Court approved the purchase of some 61 acres south of the Baxter County Airport after the FAA had flagged the property’s tree line as being too high. At the time, the FAA notified the airport and the county that the trees could potentially force the shuttering of the airport in its entirety.
The cost of the land purchase was $302,000.
“Additionally, last year the county purchased 60 acres at the end of the runway where the runway would need to be extended,” Dr. Vester said. “We have a clear pathway to allow for that at this point. We’ve also had to remove a number of obstructions on the approaches to the runway. Most of that was trees that the FAA had identified as problems that had to be taken care of.”
In addition to clearing out obstructions near the airport runway, Dr. Vester said the airport had begun exploring its options for what material the runway will be made out of. If possible, he said, the airport will most likely go with a concrete airport that will have a projected life expectancy of 45 years.
The airport currently has an asphalt runway which needs to be addressed every seven years or so. The cost will be the main contributing factor in determining what kind of material is used for the runway.
“One of the topics that has come up is that we are still working on trying to build this runway with concrete rather than asphalt, because even though concrete is a little more expensive, in the long run the life of the concrete runway is about 45 years,” Dr. Vester said. “With an asphalt runway, which is what we have now, it would need to be addressed about every seven or so years, and we have to go out and do some sort of major renovation project to fix it. If we do this the initial cost is a bit more but our savings down the road is substantial by not having to do so much maintenance on the asphalt.”
Vester also said that a concrete airport would improve safety for commercial aircraft when making their landings.
“Heavier roads and faster aircraft are what we are going to be seeing. The 6,000-foot length provides additional braking room,” he said. “And when you come into that runway out there, we are already at a slightly higher angle to approach runway 23, we are at a 4-degree glide slope as opposed to the normal 3-degree glide slope. While that may not seem like a big deal, when you’re flying a jet in here at 200 knots, that little bit of extra speed that you have to burn out sometimes, the length really makes the difference.”
Following his discussion on the airport’s runway, Vester notified the Quorum Court that the airport had completed its engineering studies surrounding the runway and soil at the airport, with results coming back positive. He said the next step would be to conduct an environmental study in the near future.
Additionally, Vester also updated the court on the purchase of the airport’s new aircraft rescue and firetruck. The truck was purchased with the assistance of the Midway Volunteer Fire Department and is equipped with foam and halon.
“It’s quite the truck and it’s awesome that we were able to get that,” Dr. Vester said.
Funding for the airport’s runway is expected to come from a variety of sources, with 90% of the share being paid for by an FAA grant. Another 5% will be paid for by the Arkansas Division of Aeronautics. The remaining 5% will be covered by taxpayers in Baxter County.
The initial expected cost was roughly $1.2 to $1.8 million in 2022, but inflation has driven the number higher. The expansion is expected to run Baxter County taxpayers over $3 million. The county’s purchase of 60 acres will go towards that figure.
The total project cost has climbed to roughly $50 million according to Vester’s presentation Tuesday evening.
The pitch for Baxter County’s runway upgrade was largely economical from the start. With airport officials promoting commercial flights in and out of the area in an attempt to bring in more business and tourist tax dollars to the county.
During his presentation, Vester said that Monett, Missouri, a small town in Southwest Missouri, had focused its COVID-19 funds on expanding its small airport after determining that the expansion would give taxpayers their biggest rate of return when spending the new funds.
It should be noted, that much of the COVID-19 funding that was given to Baxter County and other governments all throughout the United States was “use it or lose it” when passed by Congress.
Dr. Vester ended his presentation by bringing light to the airport’s hangar crisis. Roughly 70 aircraft are registered to Baxter County Airport, despite the airport only having 40 hangers. An additional 60 or so planes are currently asking for hangar space.
Vester said the airport has already begun clearing some land to make space for new hangars as funding becomes available. He also said that 400 or so planes are expected to land at the airport for the upcoming Solar Eclipse in April.