Friday, April 13, 2012

Sanford airport taking off

photo by Sean Murphy 
 Future hangar site
~Dana Perry, manager at Sanford Regional Airport, stands in an open field that will be the location of an eight-hangar building, similar to the existing hangars seen in the background. The move is the latest sign of expanding business at the airport, and Perry is hoping a new marketing effort will boost traffic even further.

The town of Sanford recently signed a lease with a company to build a new, eight-unit hangar building at the Sanford Regional Airport.

According to the Weekly Observer, the agreement will allow MAS Hangars to begin building the 18,500-square-foot hangar at the airport, where the Federal Aviation Administration estimates some 76,000 takeoffs and landings occur annually.

Airport Manager Dana Perry told the paper the airport has recently undergone $8 million in largely federally funded improvements, including runway upgrades and new parking spaces for small planes. The airport currently has 66 hangars, which can house up to 80 planes, according to the paper.

SANFORD - A recent approval of a new eight-unit hangar building at Sanford Regional Airport could be a sign of clear skies ahead for the facility.

At a recent meeting, the Town Council signed a leasing agreement with MAS Hangars, which permits the company to build a new, 18,500-square-foot hangar building at the airport.

James Knowles, who operates Southern Maine Aviation at the airport, is planning to build the hangars. The move, according to Dana Perry, airport manager, is a sign of business picking up there.

“I think it’s indicative of what’s been happening at (the airport) for the past five years,” he said.

Among other changes, Perry said, is the growth of hangar space, which had nearly doubled in size even before the new project was approved. There are 66 hangars now. Knowles has built or rebuilt 39 of them since 2005 alone. The airport can hold as many as 80 planes in its buildings at any one time, and actually has a total of 90 planes based there at various times of the year, Perry said.

Other improvements include $8 million in upgrades to the existing runways and new outdoor parking spaces for small planes. About 95 percent of the improvements have been paid for by the federal government, Perry said.

Despite the larger outdoor space, Perry said, hangars are always a better place to park an aircraft.

“It’s much better for airplanes to be under a hangar than out in the sun,” he said.

The airport began as a dirt airfield in 1929, after the Goodall family donated the land to the town. A Works Project Administration project in the 1930s expanded the runways to a configuration nearly identical to that in use today, and paving the runways led to the U.S. Navy using it in the 1940s as an auxilary airfield. A recent aerial photograph of the field still shows a 1,000-foot stretch of runway once used by Navy pilots to practice short landings, in preparation for landing on aircraft carriers.

The airport made some headlines in 2007, when a dispute with operator Sanford Air over leasing fees led to the town evicting the company. The company then waged a bitter civil battle in court, but eventually lost.
Despite the dispute, the airport has continued to grow. Today, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates some 76,000 takeoffs and landings there annually. Between building property taxes from about 30 different hangar and building owners, and lease payments made by those same owners, the town makes between $135,000 and $140,000 off the airport every year, Perry said. With an operating budget of about $210,000, Perry said, he is optimistic that the airport’s continued growth means it will soon be paying for itself, and then some.

“The goal, ultimately, is to make the airport self-sustaining,” he said.

It is a general aviation airport, which means there are no military or major commercial airline operations there, but it is the second-largest airport of its kind next to the Lewiston/Auburn airport, Perry said.
James Nimon, executive director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, said another factor in the airport’s growth is new legislation last summer that abolished a “use tax.” The old law required that anyone who bought a plane in a state without sales tax, but then moved the plane to Maine, had to pay the state of Maine a sales tax fee.

“It certainly put Sanford on the map,” Nimon said of the move to eliminate the tax.

Nimon said renovations to the airport during the recession were essential in anticipation of the recession ending. One thing economic developers have learned, he said, is that communities need to prepare for the end of a recession, even when it seems like there’s no end in sight.

“They feel like baby steps to us now,” he said of some of the more recent developments like the hangar expansion. “(But) you have to do the preparatory stuff.”

Now, Nimon said, with other signs indicating the country may be finally clawing its way out of hard economic times, it’s time to make the airport the cornerstone of commercial and industrial recovery in the area. Nimon said he and the council are working on a new marketing plan for the airport, including a website and promotional materials.

“Certainly there’s a lot of pieces to that,” he said.

Perry said the hope is to see more people flying to Sanford, but he sees the airport as more than just a stopover point for people visiting friends on the coast.

“We would like a nice, healthy mix of aircraft here,” he said.

Perry said he hopes marketing plans can draw in a commercial corporate air service. Many of these companies already exist, flying corporate clients in and out of Boston, but storing small jets at Logan International Airport is expensive. Parking in Sanford is cheaper, he said, and flying a jet from Boston to Maine literally takes minutes to do.

There is also plenty of room, he said, for companies wishing to set up aircraft repair and maintenance shops, a natural offshoot of new growth at the airport.

“Like the governor says, we’re open for business, and we have a lot to offer,” he said.

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