The Cloquet Carlton County Airport was a flurry of activity June 13 with a nearly constant stream of aircraft landing and taking off.
The number of take-offs and landings that day was a little bit misleading, according to airport manager Quentin Anderson. Most of the activities were “touch-and-gos" -- learning exercises for students at Venture North Aviation, a flight school operating out of the airport. A "touch-and-go" means the aircraft lands, taxis around to the take-off position and then takes off again.
Venture North offers professional pilot services, accelerated flight training and commercial pilot courses and owns a hangar at the airport.
Anderson estimated there are 10-20 operations — a landing or take-off — each day. That doesn’t include each touch-and-go, which can cause the number to rise to more than 50 each day.
Carlton County owns and operates two airports: the airport on Wheaton Road in Cloquet and the Moose Lake Carlton County Airport on County Road 61. Combined, there are more than 50 aircraft based at the county's airports — 42 in Cloquet alone. Hangar rental varies by aircraft, but it accounts for the lion’s share of the revenue generated by airports.
The airports also produce revenue through fuel sales and receive funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Aeronautics for maintenance. Anderson said funding from MnDOT is projected to be about $65,000 in 2019.
“We’re teetering on the edge of being operationally self-sufficient and levying only for capital improvements,” Anderson said. “I’m hoping we can be totally self-sufficient in just a few years.”
Federal, state funding supports improvements
Carlton County airports boasted an operating surplus for 2017 and 2018, according to the Carlton County Transportation Department, which oversees the airports. In 2017, there was a surplus of more than $60,000 due to some extra state maintenance funding and some lower-than-expected expenses. The 2018 budget was closer to original projections and showed a surplus of approximately $1,100.
For the past few years, the only local property tax money the county has used for the airport is for improvements and repairs to the airports. The vast majority of funding for capital projects, like the $1.5 million reconstruction of one of the two runways in Cloquet that was completed earlier in June, is provided by the Federal Aviation Administration or MnDOT.
FAA funding covered 90% of those costs, with MnDOT and the county each accounting for 5% — or approximately $75,000— of the total.
Typically, FAA or MnDOT funding accepted by the county for projects includes “grant assurances” that the county keep the airport in good repair for a certain amount of time — typically 20 years — after the grant is awarded.
Some local airports have had trouble continuing to operate their airports with few hangar rentals and more maintenance than they can keep up with.
More than a year ago, MnDOT ordered the Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Municipal Airport to close due to safety concerns about the runway. The Silver Bay City Council stopped accepting federal and state grants because it believed the airport had become a burden on local taxpayers with little or no benefit.
Just five airplanes were hangared in Silver Bay when the airport closed and only two of those belonged to residents of the city. Closing the airport altogether remains on the table for Silver Bay, but the city could owe the state and federal governments more than $750,000 because of grant assurances that have yet to be fulfilled.
The Carlton County airports, however, each have a waiting list of pilots looking to rent a hangar. In addition, there are a number of private hangars at each airport and another is currently being built in Cloquet.
Hangar owners have a lease for the land where the hangar is located and the county collects property taxes on the buildings, Anderson said.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies Airport Economic Impact Calculator estimates the two airports combined will generate nearly $3 million and more than 35 jobs county-wide in 2019. The calculator uses economic factors like airport revenue, construction costs and the number of visitors to estimate the amount of economic activity and jobs the airport generates.
A lure for businesses
Local airports can also be an incentive for businesses to come to Carlton County, according to Anderson.
“There are businesses that won’t come to town if you don’t have an airport,” he said.
Especially with large national retailers, executives want the ability to fly directly to their properties' locations instead of using Duluth or Twin Cities airports and then driving.
Anderson said representatives of Aldi, which opened a Cloquet store earlier this year, have used the airport, as well as executives from businesses like The Boldt Co., Specialty Systems Inc. and C.R. Meyer. Utility companies like Northern Natural Gas, Minnesota Energy Resources, Great River Energy have used the airport for air inspections of gas and electrical lines.
Bill Stone, president of Venture North, said his company fills 120 hotel rooms in Cloquet and the surrounding area each month with student pilots and other guests.
Lake Superior College in Duluth uses the Cloquet airport as part of its aviation program. Minnesota State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources and air ambulance services like Life Link III also use it.
Carlton County Commissioner Gary Peterson, who represents the district containing the Moose Lake airport, said the benefits to having the airports far outweigh costs to taxpayers.
“The airports provide a positive economic impact to the county in many ways,” Peterson said in an email. “ A variety of public entities, local businesses and visitors use the airports on a daily basis.”