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Willmar Municipal Airport 7 years in: 'New' airport has unfulfilled goals still on runway

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Planner/airport manager Megan DeSchepper said she's still hopeful the Willmar Municipal Airport's original goals -- to have a commercial flight carrier and to be able to expand the runway -- can someday be fulfilled.2 / 2

When the new Willmar Municipal Airport opened in 2006, then-airport manager Melissa Galvan had three main goals -- to get the airport built and someday have a commercial flight carrier and be able to expand the runway.

Seven years later, planner/airport manager Megan DeSchepper said she's still hopeful Galvan's original goals can someday be fulfilled.

"If we have enough jet usage of the runway, it would be great to be able to expand the runway," DeSchepper said. "And who knows -- maybe someday we'll be able to have commercial flights here."

While those goals haven't come to fruition yet, DeSchepper said the airport still has been successful in the first seven years its been operating.

"There are more businesses operating there than when it first opened," she said. "We've had increased hangar sales and increased activity."

Currently, there are about a dozen businesses who fly in and out of Willmar Municipal Airport, in addition to the businesses who own private hangars there and the handful of businesses who operate out of the airport.

To keep businesses flying in and out of John L. Rice Field, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission has worked to help market the airport to potential customers.

"We have set some proposed goals that we need to look at that can help us increase the use of the airport," EDC Executive Director Steve Renquist said. "We need to make ourselves more vital to people at the airport. We need to look at how we can make our current customers happier. We need to look at how do we make our citizens happier."

One of Renquist's main goals to help the airport continue growing in the Willmar business community is to find businesses who would be willing to move to Willmar because of the location and the airport.

"We know there are people that could move their businesses here," Renquist said. "We need to introduce ourselves to them because we know they won't come to us."

One such business is Life Link III, which recently moved its air medical transport operations from Hutchinson to Willmar.

"Our mission is to serve the area with respect to emergency services," Paul Macheledt, vice president of operations for Life Link III, said. "We like to be in position in an area of greatest need. We try to pick a location that minimizes the time it takes to transport patients to Level 1 and Level 2 hospitals, which are usually in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud."

Life Link III provides service to Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and other area hospitals who need to transport patients to larger hospitals.

"This (is) a big deal for us," Renquist said. "It's a testimonial to the airport in terms of quality. They also moved here because it's better located for them; Hutchinson was too close to the cities. Perhaps there are other businesses that find our location to be beneficial."

In addition to finding businesses to relocate to Willmar because of the airport, the businesses currently here have used the airport to increase the size of the area they can serve.

"The airport helps us be more regional and provide outreach not just to other communities in Minnesota, but even to other states," DeSchepper said. "Some businesses fly employees to other states to do work, which is amazing to me. They can be based out of Willmar but are providing services all around the country, which is good for our local economy."

Marcus Construction, of Willmar, has employees fly around the country at least once a week for business reasons. Randy Wright, Marcus Construction's business developer, said the company builds large fertilizer and flat grain storage facilities as far north as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and as far south as Galveston, Texas, and Louisiana. The company builds as far east as Crestline, Ohio, and as far west as Great Falls, Mont.

"The airport is important because we need to go in and make contact with the people who will potentially own these facilities," Wright said. "I am on that airplane at least once a week. Driving is just not possible."

Marcus Construction subcontracts local construction crews, but the company also flies salesmen, safety inspectors and project managers out to its project sites at least weekly.

"There's no way we could cover as much of the country as we do without the airport," Wright said.

Kayla Prasek

Kayla Prasek is a staff writer for Prairie Business magazine. She is a 2014 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Contemporary Media & Journalism and Political Science programs and is originally from Watertown, S.D. She previously was the city reporter at the Watertown Public Opinion.

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