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DreamCatcher Aviation to locate customization services to Bemidji

An airport means more to a regional economy than just allowing vacationers to come and go, Bemidji Regional Airport officials say.

It can provide a campus for high-paid aircraft industry jobs, such as the manufacturer that will locate at the Bemidji Airport, Airport Manager Harold Van Leeuwen said Friday.

DreamCatcher Aviation has signed a letter of intent to bring its aircraft customization services to Bemidji, Van Leeuwen said during a meeting with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

"These will be highly paid, skilled people," Van Leeuwen said of the anticipated $30,000 to $45,000 salary jobs. "The principles are native American, and that helps to access other programs. ... We have the right people involved."

The aircraft customization service for large corporate aircraft plans to start with 15 workers, but may eventually reach 45 workers, he said. It is expected to begin service in about 18 months in a west area of the airport campus, a designated Jobs Opportunity Building Zone site in which tax incentives can be used.

In addition, Van Leeuwen said the Bemidji Airport hopes to land another company that Dream-Catcher Aviation is seeking to establish as a new subsidiary. That new firm would manufacturer small aircraft used principally for crop spraying.

"The company wants to manufacture a Grumman model spray plane, and manufacture that here," he said. "And that may come with two other affiliated companies -- one for marketing and one for overhauls."

If successful, the plant would have $6.5 million in work the first year in reinstituting a spray plane that hasn't been manufacture red for more than a year. The single-engine biplane Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat was last made by Ag-Cat Corp. in North Carolina.

"The market shows the need for 20 to 40 of the planes a year," Van Leeuwen said. "A soybean crop blight shows that aerial spraying is the best, and a reason why they want to build it up here."

After arriving to the southern U.S. in 2004 from South America, the Midwest is expected to be hit by soybean rust, a fungus that causes premature leaf loss, leading to fewer bean pods, fewer seeds per pod and early maturity. Fungicides that can control the rust must be sprayed soon after infection.

"Hopefully these will be the first of companies using applied engineering to build up here," Van Leeuwen told Pawlenty, who pushed the JOBZ program through the Legislature to help locate manufacturers to rural Minnesota.

"And this is as you laid out in JOBZ -- not to relocate jobs within Minnesota but in creating new jobs," Van Leeuwen said, as DreamCatcher Aviation is based in Arizona.

The effort to gain manufacturers to the airport is one of several ongoing projects to expand the airport, Van Leeuwen said.

As part of extending infrastructure to the JOBZ sites, to prepare the areas for companies, $5.775 million will be spent on water, sanitary, roads and development.

But also planned are airport enhancements that will leave a $17 million deficit in five years, for which Bemidji will be looking at a host of sources from passenger fees to state and federal aid.

The airport's secondary 7/25 runway will be rebuilt this year, allowing more extensive work the following year on the principal 13/31 runway, Van Leeuwen said.

The 7/25 runway will be shifted to meet federal safety standards which redesign airport zones in a new Bemidji Airport Master Plan, and will have the state install a new instrument landing system for that approach.

The more extensive work will be on the top runway, 13/31, which will also be shifted 890 feet and extended 400 feet to provide a 7,000-foot surface to handle a new fleet of regional jets, Van Leeuwen said.

"It will meet all regional jet requirements," he said. "The jets will be 70 to 90 passenger jets, which they will need in order to run them."

But Van Leeuwen said the Bemidji Airport, approaching 31,000 enplanements a year, is the state's fourth-active airport behind Minneapolis/St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester. With 28,400 enplanements last year, the closest to Bemidji at 24,000 enplanements is St. Cloud.

"We are growing faster than any of them," Leeuwen told Pawlenty. "We have a five-year plan, but it will take longer."

Also included is expansion of the current terminal, increasing it from one gate to two gates. The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the terminal is 44 percent short of space, he said.

In addition to a second gate, improvements include jetways, office and meeting space, FAA equipment space, possible customs space and a vending area. The airport also needs 30 percent more parking space.

While Bemidji's air service has basically remained unaffected by Northwest Airlines' bankruptcy, Van Leeuwen said the state's airports will see longterm effects as Northwest falls $4.2 million short of fees it is supposed to pay into the state's Aviation Trust Fund.

The fund, used by the state Department of Transportation for airport improvements, is already $15 million short as lawmakers transferred that amount to the general fund as part of last year's budget-balancing act.

Under current law, the state is to repay the $15 million in 2008, but Leeuwen said airport managers are asking that the state repay it at $5 million a year for three years, starting this year, because of the Northwest Airlines uncertainty.

Mesaba Airlines, which is also under a threat of bankruptcy as a Northwest subsidiary Northwest Airlink, continues to serve Bemidji, Van Leeuwen said. There are two fewer flights than a year ago, but capacity has been increased.

But there are a total of four regional airlines which could expect to compete for the Twin Cities-Bemidji route should Northwest bid for regional carriers.

"We are a profit location and Northwest says it will retain services to Bemidji," Van Leeuwen told Beltrami County commissioners in a similar briefing earlier last week. "Northwest plans to strengthen its Midwest operations, and it will not move away from its hub-and-spoke operation."