Alpena County Regional Updates Passenger Amenities, Honors Local History

Alpena County Regional Updates Passenger Amenities, Honors Local History
Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

What do Great Lakes shipwrecks, a wildlife sanctuary and concrete blocks have in common? They all provided design inspiration for the new terminal at Alpena County Regional Airport (APN) in northeast Michigan.

Replacing a dated and inefficient building, the new terminal includes more space, updated security and several firsts for APN: a passenger boarding bridge, an automated baggage system and airside restrooms. While adding the new amenities, the airport and design team also managed to pay homage to the region’s rich industrial background, storied maritime history and rustic Northwoods surroundings.

“There is no comparison between the old and the new terminal,” says Airport Manager Steve Smigelski. “Our old terminal was about 6,000 square feet and was the flower of 1950s design technology. After Sept. 11, when a passenger holdroom had to be constructed, the terminal took on less of an open floor plan and began to resemble a rat’s maze. It was terrible for passenger flow, it was terrible for checking bags and there was no efficient movement. The new, nearly 13,000-square-foot terminal is such a tremendous improvement for the airport and the entire Alpena County community.”


Project: New Terminal

Alpena County (MI) Regional Airport

Size: Almost 13,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $12.5 million

Funding: $10 million in FAA discretionary funds; $1.5 million bond approved by county voters; $1 million from county’s general fund

Key Features: Updated/expanded TSA checkpoint; automated baggage system; larger holdroom; airside restrooms; passenger boarding bridge; fireplace in lobby; 200-space parking lot

Construction: Nov. 2018 - March 2020

Architect/Design Consultant: 
RS&H Inc.

General Contractor: Spence Brothers

Cost Estimator: Vistara Construction Services

Acoustical Consultant: AVANT Acoustics

Baggage Handling System: RS&H Inc.; Spence Brothers; Innovative Handling; Daifuku Airport Technologies - Jervis B. Webb Co.  

Signage & Wayfinding: Apple Design

Curtain Wall System: Kawneer 1600

Glazing: SunGuard SuperNeutral 68, by Guardian Glass

Seating: Arconas

Flooring: Shaw; Crossville

Restroom Fixtures: Bradley; Kohler; Sloan

Passenger Screening Equipment: L3

Flight Information Displays: Samsung

Boarding Bridge: Ameribridge

Heat Trace Wiring: Delta-Therm

Construction took 16 months and was completed last spring. As an Essential Air Service airport, APN draws passengers from four counties and is located more than 60 miles from the nearest main highway. The closest commercial field is Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, MI, about 110 miles away.

Prior to COVID-19 emerging, APN logged approximately 13,000 annual enplanements and was gaining about 1,000 new passengers each year. With traffic down due to the pandemic, it still offers two round-trip flights per day to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

Needs & Wants

Airport and Alpena County officials began discussing the need for a new terminal with the FAA a full decade ago. After touring the facility, FAA personnel deemed the airport’s previous terminal “woefully inadequate,” and the agency offered nearly $10 million in discretionary funding to improve it. Voters subsequently approved a $1.5 million bond issue, and Alpena County contributed $1 million to the project.

As part of its disbursement, FAA required the airport to renovate a taxiway connector that was too wide to meet current design guidelines. Airfield engineers remedied the situation by splitting the taxiway into two different connectors. The associated work was bid out separately but funded through the same grant.

Because APN built its new terminal adjacent to the old one, the vast majority of airside apron was already in place. Only 10 to 15 feet of new pavement was needed to facilitate safe operations.

Designing the terminal building was considerably more involved. “Before we put pencil to paper, we did quite a bit of research on the community,” says Frank Gratton, design director of Aviation Architecture at RS&H. “We wanted to discover the uniqueness of Alpena County. The approach we took was a community-inspired design. The community vision is a combination of all stakeholders, and at the end of the day, we’re called to reinterpret that.”

During several visits to Alpena, the design team learned how important the concrete industry is to the community. Quarries, cement plants and the Center for Concrete Technology are all located there, as is Besser Company, which invented the machinery needed to massproduce concrete blocks. RS&H designers also visited the nearby shores of Lake Huron, toured the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary, and explored local estuaries and woodlands.

Several impressions stuck with the team. “We wanted to tie the concrete industry into the terminal design to cherish the industry’s history and showcase it to the community,” says Andrew Nelson, an RS&H aviation architect. “And the Northwoods region has a lot of natural beauty. Given its location on Lake Huron and Thunder Bay, Alpena has a rich history of maritime shipwrecks. Those were our inspirations.”

When creating the terminal exterior, designers opted to use various colored concrete blocks of different sizes to resemble the limestone rock striations they observed at local quarries. “We patterned the concrete masonry units to pick up on the natural rock formations,” says Gratton. “It’s an economical approach, but it also ties into the community. A lot of people looking at it from a distance might think, ‘Wow. This is a really nice stone.’ But it was an economical decision based on aesthetics and history.”

The structure itself has two offset sloping roofs creating a south-facing clerestory, and glazed facades on the east and west sides. “Alpena is pretty far north,” Gratton advises. “We wanted to bring natural daylight into the lobby space, on the airside and landside.”

In the summer, when the sun travels higher, the overhang allows less direct sunlight into the space. In the winter, when the sun is lower, more sunlight streams in. “People appreciate the sunlight and the warmth in the winter months,” says Gratton.

The soffit that runs around the building exterior could be considered an “Easter egg” (a meaningful visual detail that takes hunting to find). Smigelski explains that the soffit’s copper color references a local maritime tragedy that occurred in the 1800s, when a ship laden with nearly 200 tons of copper sunk to the bottom of nearby Thunder Bay. Despite the depth of the wreck, the valuable cargo inspired numerous salvage attempts over many years, and at least five people died trying to recover the ship’s contents. “The soffit is just another example of how detailed the design team got,” he relates.

“Hearthwarming” Details

Just inside the entry/exit doors is a fireplace surrounded by chairs, sofas and casual seating with low tables. “It gets a little chilly up here in northern Michigan, and a fireplace is just such a welcoming touch,” says Smigelski. “And again, the twin stacks that go up from the fireplace to the ceiling are a nod to the area’s industrial base.”

RS&H’s Nelson explains that designers worked to make the lobby look and feel homey. “Because this is a smaller regional airport, we had the opportunity to create an intimate setting—almost treating the area as a living room or lounge where people could say their hellos and goodbyes. We wanted to make this super-comfortable with plush seating all revolving around the fireplace hearth. And we added dynamic and playful lighting (large round fixtures) overhead as well.”

The translucent wall that separates APN’s landside and airside areas is both functional and artistic. The 10-foot-high, 56-foot-long wall includes large acrylic panels filled with natural grasses and reeds that represent varieties found at the nearby Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We had a lot of exciting natural inspiration we could pull from,” Nelson remarks. “What we wanted to do was bring some of that inspiration into the terminal. It’s a unique feature to pull in from the natural elements.”

21st Century Touches

The terminal’s new baggage system, designed by RS&H, is a vast improvement for employees and passengers alike. Previously, passengers gave their luggage to ticketing agents, who handed it off to other employees, who took it to the luggage trailer for screening and delivery to aircraft on the ramp.

Now, an automated conveyor system transports checked bags from behind the ticketing counters to the TSA check-in area for screening. Another conveyor then carries them to the baggage makeup room in the garage.

Because the project team economized, APN was able to afford its first baggage carousel. Previously, employees left baggage on the floor between the TSA station and ticketing counter for arriving passengers to claim.

Seating capacity in the holdroom increased from 30 to 90, finally resolving the inherent space crunch associated with Delta Air Lines flights that use 50-passenger CRJ200 aircraft. “When we were busy, TSA would actually have to shut down screening until they could let some of the passengers board the aircraft and then open screening back up again,” recalls Smigelski. “This also sets us up beautifully for the future, when larger aircraft will start replacing the CRJ200s.”

All seats—in the holdroom and in landside areas—now have power outlets for charging electronic devices. In addition, APN installed two new flight information displays—one in the passenger holdroom and one behind the ticketing counter.

Passengers are particularly pleased to have restrooms in the hold area. The airport added two gender-neutral restrooms, complete with family-oriented amenities such as changing tables. “That was a vast improvement,” Smigelski says. “Previously, if someone needed to use the restroom, they would have to leave the holdroom and go back through screening again.”

The new TSA checkpoint has twice as much room, with a separate area for private screenings and a recomposure area for passengers to put their shoes back on, repack liquid items removed from carry-ons, etc. But the real showpiece is a full-body scanner from L3.

“That’s huge for us. Our TSA regional contacts worked hard on our behalf,” says Smigelski. “Previously, everything had to be done with hand screening. If you had someone with an artificial hip or an older veteran with shrapnel, they would set off the magnetometer, and they would then have to go into the secondary checkroom, which was quite inconvenient. With this new scanner, you simply step in it, raise your hands, get scanned and go.”

Airline and TSA offices are located on the secure side of the checkpoint. Airport administration offices remain next door in the building that housed the former terminal.

Easier Boarding

Another new amenity proving popular with passengers is a boarding bridge. Ryan Hall, aviation architect and project manager at RS&H, explains that adding a bridge was very important because APN serves an older population, and many passengers had challenges using stairs to enter and exit aircraft at the previous terminal.

Finding the right bridge, however, was crucial.

For one thing, the airport’s budget did not allow for a new bridge. Beyond that were practical issues. Hall explains that most passenger boarding bridges require several feet of foundation to support a pedestal below the rotunda. To accommodate this at APN, the design team would have had to substantially raise the new terminal’s floor or install a costly ramp system to provide the required height.

“Luckily, Ameribridge checked both of those boxes by offering a refurbished radial boarding bridge that utilizes a pedestal that can be supported by the apron pavement alone,” says Hall. “This allowed us to leave the finished floor at grade and simply slope the apron pavement slightly to accommodate the bridge.”

Passengers also appreciate APN’s new parking lot, which has 200 free spaces. The old terminal had one lot with 60 spaces shared by passengers, visitors, employees and a rental car company. Now, employees and the rental car company have their own 30-space parking lot.

Sequel Projects

The new terminal and other recent additions are just the beginning of improvements at APN. The airport received $17.9 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government last year, and APN officials plan to use the money for several other construction projects when approved by the FAA. RS&H has already completed the land use study for the building project, and construction is slated to begin in two to three years.


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