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Van Leeuwen to step down as head of Bemidji Airport

BEMIDJI — After more than 11 years of running Bemidji Regional Airport, Harold Van Leeuwen is set to leave his post as executive director later this year for a consulting job near Nashville.

Van Leeuwen plans for his effective last day to be Dec. 20 and his official day of termination to be Jan. 4 of next year.

The outgoing director said Wednesday he will move to Tennessee to work as a consultant for a firm being created to help communities around the U.S. manage their own airports. The company is so new it doesn’t have an official name yet, he said, but its creators are calling it “EAS” for “Essential Air Services.”

Van Leeuwen expressed gratitude for everything the people of Bemidji had given him and his family. He said he considers famed grocery store executive Joe Lueken, who Van Leeuwen was working for in 2002 before he came to the airport, to be a mentor.

“I had extraordinary support from people in town when we came out here,” he said.

Before working for the Lueken family, Van Leeuwen had a distinguished career as a member of the U.S. Air Force. After serving as a flight crew member in Vietnam, Van Leeuwen’s assignments included a posting at Space Command, a spot as a general’s aide and two separate postings at the squadron-commander level. 

Some of the highlights of Van Leeuwen’s time at Bemidji Regional include the switch from an Airport Commission as a board of directors for the airport to an Airport Authority. The switch helped resolve jurisdictional disputes between Beltrami County and the city of Bemidji by putting two members of each government on the new board and letting the Authority have final say over goings-on at the airport, he said.

Van Leeuwen also helmed the airport during $30 million dollars’ worth of renovations that completely redid the runways and taxiing areas, as well as drastically overhauled Bemidji Regional’s terminal.

Van Leeuwen already has a favored successor picked out in Karen Weller, his second-in-command at the airport. At an Airport Authority meeting Wednesday, he said he wanted to have a smaller, more localized job posting, and that Weller would fit the bill.

“You go nationally or wide (for a job search), you’re going to get either somebody straight out of UND who wants to be here three years to punch their clock, or you’re going to get somebody  that’s coming for three (years) to retire,” he said. “You’ll get some good people, but that’s what you’ll get — a two- or three-year person.”

However, the board discussed the possibility of having a more intensive selection process.

 Jim Lucachick asked about potentially widening the search, if it wasn’t too expensive.

“I’m not discrediting the current application and who we know,” he said, referring to Weller.

Eventually, the board voted to work on the matter further at their meeting next month.

After the meeting, Van Leeuwen reiterated Weller was his preferred choice to take over, but said it wasn’t up to him to decide the process of succession.

 “She has 20 years’ experience doing this kind of stuff. She’s highly qualified. She’s very diligent, very enthusiastic,” he said.  “But it’s not my decision; it is (the Airport Authority’s) decision. They have to do it in a public way, and meet their public requirements, and they will do that.”

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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