Joe Harris closes his eyes and sees a bustling future for his St. Paul Downtown Airport. A busy restaurant in the terminal, students and airport tourists lazing on a new outdoor plaza, listening to flight controllers' voices over loudspeakers. Bicyclists and kayakers, getting off nearby trails and the Mississippi River and heading inside the castle-like 1939 terminal to grab a bite.
"We've been asleep," said Harris, airport manager for two years. "But the airport has always been active. We want the people of St. Paul to understand who is taking off and landing at Holman Field."
Most commercial air travelers will never use this airport, which was built in 1926 and later named for the late barnstormer Charles "Speed" Holman. But it's plenty busy, with more than 60,000 private and corporate flights taking off and landing each year. It will be really busy come the 2018 Super Bowl, when NFL owners and big shots will use it to fly more than 100 small jets into and out of the Twin Cities.
Because of that, Harris' dream isn't far off. He expects that a gutted, plastic-draped space in the terminal building will become a restaurant, primarily for pilots and crews of all those corporate jets, by the day of the big game. A new plaza and a new canoe and kayak landing at the nearby river should soon be ready as well.
"There's just a lot of energy behind St. Paul right now," Harris said of an airport that hosts flight operations for 3M, the Minnesota National Guard, the State Patrol, United Health and U.S. Bank. It has hangars filled with more than 100 corporate aircraft and a couple hundred aviation workers. "The people here want to showcase St. Paul and raise the profile."
Harris' ambitions started about January 2015, when Holman Field hosted Hockey Day in Minnesota, with players entering a temporary rink on the tarmac through a Chinook helicopter. It was then that Harris and his bosses at the Metropolitan Airports Commission started enjoying the attention that came with greater visibility.
Because of St. Paul's 6,700-foot runway, it can accommodate Gulfstream jets that can reach Asia and Europe and South America on a single tank of fuel, said Gary Schmidt, director of reliever airports for MAC. That makes St. Paul the place for multinational companies to launch their international corporate travel.
The 5,000-foot runways at Flying Cloud and Anoka aren't long enough for such flights, meaning St. Paul is the region's top "reliever" airport to divert corporate travel away from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. That improves wait times for commercial flights at MSP, he said.
"St. Paul gets more than 70 percent of the corporate flights now," he said.
That runway and a $45 million flood wall completed in 2008 — allowing St. Paul to stay open despite surging Mississippi waters — have encouraged businesses to invest millions in hangars and other facilities at the airport. Adding even more amenities for the crews of those flights is a good thing, Harris said.
Officials with companies such as Minnesota Jet, which staffs and services jets owned by local corporations, and Signature Flight Support, with more than 200 facilities catering to private travel worldwide, agree with him.
Reaching future pilots
"The beauty of St. Paul is it's just as close to downtown Minneapolis as MSP, and it's easy in, easy out," said Geoff Heck, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Signature. "And any airport with its visibility raised is good for the industry. Getting more people down there and getting them involved is huge."
It has been decades since St. Paul's 540-acre airport that was once home to Northwest Airlines was more than an afterthought for many. But Heck and others say the airport's growing profile with the broader public could mean increased interest in aviation by young people. And that leads to more future pilots and mechanics.
Steve Hurvitz is vice president and project director of the Learning Jet, a former Federal Express airplane parked at St. Paul and renovated to serve as a classroom for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. The plane, with working jet engines, also is used to teach Minneapolis Community and Technical College students.
Last year, Hurvitz said, the program taught 2,000 students. This school year, 2,500 will participate, and next year 3,000.
"Our goal is to get kids interested in the basics of flight, the things they have to know," he said. "At the St. Paul airport, we think it's a perfect fit. It's a little jewel that no one knows about."
That won't be true much longer, if Harris gets his way.
He hopes that the Super Bowl and coming basketball Final Four help stamp the airport in people's minds. After that, he said, a new restaurant and other amenities will bring them back. Talks have begun with two prospective restaurant operators, he said. It's been 16 years since the terminal housed a place to eat. And a restaurant could provide much-appreciated catering for long-haul flights.
Now, he said, it's time to make it happen again.
"The more the public understands us, the more we all benefit," Harris said. "We want to be woven into the fabric of the St. Paul experience."