Ogdensburg Int'l Takes Risk & Reaps Rewards

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

It was a momentous occasion for Ogdensburg International Airport (OGS) when Allegiant Air Flight 1711 took off for Florida on New Year's Eve. The small upstate New York airport was finally breaking the critical 10,000-enplanement threshold to qualify for $1 million of Airport Improvement Program entitlement funding.

In 2012, however, OGS was operating in the red with only 5,000 annual enplanements, and service was limited to a few flights per week on small Cessnas operated by Cape Air, via the federally subsidized Essential Air Service program.  

How did OGS double its passenger volume in four short years? By garnering community support for a $25.6 million redevelopment program to improve its terminal and airfield in hopes of attracting a major low-cost carrier. The infrastructure improvement plan worked, and also helped attract new passengers from across the Canadian border, just a stone's throw away.  

In the end, OGS received $18.1 million in FAA Airport Improvement Program funds and another $725,000 from the Empire State Development Agency for the redevelopment project; but the airport's owner, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, assumed the upfront financial risk for the entire $25.6 million initiative.

Specifically, the project included:

Airportwide Redevelopment
Location: Ogdensburg (NY) Int'l Airport
Primary Elements: Runway & Taxiway Extension; Terminal Expansion; Parking Lot Construction
Cost: $25.6 million
Funding: $18.1 million from the FAA Airport Improvement Program; $6.78 million from the Ogdensburg Bridge & Port Authority; $725,000 from the Empire State Development Agency
Design, Construction Inspection and Environmental Assessment and Permitting: McFarland Johnson
Architect: Fennick McCredie
General Contractor for Terminal: Mumane Building Contractors
Airfield & Parking Lot Construction: Marcy Excavating Services
Plumbing & Heating/Venting/Air Conditioning: Norwood Plumbing
Electrical: Dow Electric
Mechanical Contractor: Hyde-Stone Mechanical Contractors
Airfield Lighting, Signs & Runway End Identifier Lights: ADB Safegate
Airfield Pavement Markings: Hi-Lite
Baggage Carousel: G&S Airport Conveyor
Departure Lounge Seating: Zoeftig  
Of Note: Upstate NY airport redevelops facilities & adds air service to attract cross-border travelers from Canada; enplanements double in 4 yrs

• a 1,200-foot extension of the airport's sole runway; 
• widening, extending and strengthening an associated taxiway; 
• widespread terminal renovations, plus a 4,000-square-foot terminal expansion;
• realigning a state highway;
• relocating the runway's precision approach path indicator and installing runway end identifier lights; 
• relocating the existing access road; 
• expanding and strengthening the terminal apron;
• removing obstructions on and off airport property;
• improving vehicle access and circulation;
• constructing a 430-space parking lot; and 
• relocating above-ground fuel storage tanks.
"For this project to work within the compressed time frame we were looking at, the Authority had to assume 100% of the risk upfront," notes Wade Davis, executive director of the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority. "Under a typical scenario, this was a 10-year project. We got it done in three years."

In retrospect, Davis is glad the Authority took the risk. "It was clearly the right thing to do, and clearly a risky thing to do," he reflects. 

Davis also credits OGS' redevelopment partners-in particular, its design and engineering team, the FAA and federal and state elected officials who supported the project. "All of us pulling in the same direction got it done," he comments. "But there were no guarantees along the way."

Risks & Rewards

While the risks were significant, the potential rewards-including economic benefits for the entire region-were also significant. Prior to the expansion project, the airport was losing approximately $300,000 a year and "eating up" operating profits from an international bridge, industrial park and other business units also operated by the Authority, Davis laments. "Our choices were: do nothing, attempt to grow the airport or exit the business, which, of course, we couldn't do because of FAA grants and other obligations. Our only good alternative was to grow the airport."

Fortunately, the airport's location worked in its favor. The city of Ottawa, Canada's third largest air market, is a short 45-minute drive from OGS. In addition, the average wait time to enter the United States from Canada near the airport is just 35 seconds, emphasizes Davis. Despite having the highest throughput capacity, the border crossing near Ogdensburg experiences the least traffic of all crossing locations in the region, he adds. 

When researching the market, Authority officials found that more than 5 million Canadians were crossing the border each year to take advantage of lower U.S. airfares. According to data from the Conference Board of Canada, approximately 15% of Canadian travelers cross the border to fly out of U.S. airports.

The potential increase in air traffic suggested major economic benefits for OGS and the surrounding region. A New York Statewide Airport Economic Impacts Study produced in 2011 (before the project began) reported that OGS created direct and indirect employment for 53 people and generated $3.5 million in income, $7.4 million in output and $427,000 in associated state and local taxes in 2010.

An analysis by McFarland Johnson conducted in 2015 estimated that the post-runway expansion project would create direct and indirect employment for 125 to 135 people and generate income of $5.4 million to $6.7 million, output of $13.4 million to $13.8 million and $793,000 in $945,000 in state and local taxes.

"We had some pretty good metrics as to what would happen once the runway and terminal expansion project was completed," Davis reflects. "And what we're finding is that the numbers are right on in terms of employment."

Fast-tracking the project, however, required the Bridge and Port Authority to assume significant upfront risk. And to assume such risk, the Authority needed local support and commitment from the local business community. "We weren't going to use a 'build it and they will come' approach. We needed to line up business support first," Davis explains. "We started pounding the pavement to garner community support, talking to airlines and working with McFarland Johnson on an airport expansion design.

"We had a lot of things going for us," he elaborates. "It was just a matter of putting the pieces together, making the case to attract an airline to our airport."

Jeffrey Wood, transportation division manager for McFarland Johnson, recalls that the process began in 2013 with a feasibility study to determine what improvements OGS would need to accommodate Boeing A-320s. "We came up with a 1,200-foot runway extension and expansion of the terminal, apron and parking-in effect, an overhaul of the entire airfield and terminal facilities," summarizes Wood.

Warm Reception
When Authority officials approached Allegiant Air about initiating service at OGS, they were pleased at the carrier's response. Interestingly, Allegiant had already performed a competitive analysis of the Ottawa market and, like the airport, realized its commercial potential.

"We were interested in Ogdensburg because of its proximity to the Canadian market, all the Canadians crossing the border for cheaper flights," explains Eric Fletcher, manager of airports for Allegiant. 

In 2014, the Authority reached an agreement with the low-cost carrier to provide air service beginning in November 2016, contingent upon completion of OGS' expansion project. In addition, the carrier agreed to contribute up to $1 million to accelerate the project to help meet the timeline.

Although ultimately the money was not needed, Davis informs, "Allegiant's financial commitment demonstrated belief in the market and weighed heavily in the FAA's thinking about (and eventual support of) the project."

Today, Allegiant offers four departures per week from OGS: two to Orlando Sanford International and two to Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International. "While our focus today is on making the Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale routes successful, we hope for and expect more growth in the future," says Fletcher. "To get an idea of what we might mature this market into, all you have to do is look at our strong flight schedules out of Plattsburgh (PBG), Bellingham (BLI) or Niagara Falls (IAG). These are similar markets for us." 

Bridge and Port Authority Board Chairman Samuel LaMacchia shares Allegiant's optimism. "This project has a vision that is just beginning; 10,000 enplanements is the first step," says LaMacchia. "We owe Allegiant a lot. They believed in us and without their support, there would be no expansion. The future has just begun at OGS."

More Prep

Moving forward, the Authority updated the airport's master plan and took its case to the community. By a 30-1 margin, the public voted to donate land owned by the Ogdensburg City School District to the airport for water and sewage requirements. 

The Authority also reached out to county, state and federal officials and found support on both sides of the political aisle.

Environmental challenges, however, posed a problem. To satisfy a compensatory mitigation requirement necessary for a Department of Army permit, the Authority paid $559,300 to Ducks Unlimited for 7.99 wetland mitigation credits in the Western St. Lawrence River Service Area, per requirements of the New York In-Lieu Fee Program. Davis highlights the agreement as a "huge environmental win."

In addition, several obstructions had to be removed to facilitate the runway extension. The Authority worked with a community association to remove trees from an adjacent cemetery, and a local church sold OGS an island with trees that were problematic for the project.  

On the airfield, some existing taxiway and apron pavements were not strong enough to accommodate A-320s. As a result, both had to be bolstered, and engineers also added a concrete parking position to the apron. 

The existing 7,361-square-foot terminal was expanded to 11,326 square feet, with growth occurring to the north, where a new baggage carousel was added. Outside, crews installed new exterior sheathing and constructed a new roof. "From an aesthetics perspective, it's a pretty remarkable transformation," reports Wood.     

Previously, about half of the terminal functioned as hangar space for Cape Air. During renovations, that area was converted into a holdroom, which now provides seating for up to 200 travelers. Cape Air moved to another hangar at the airport.

"The architect's treatment of the hangar door offers an interesting architectural feature in the new terminal," Wood notes. "The door was replaced with a glass wall, which gives the departure lounge an open, airy feel and offers a great view of the apron and airfield. The bifold hangar door was fully opened and pinned in place to create shade for the glass wall." 

To contain costs, space planners left the TSA checkpoint in its original position at the center of the terminal. With the addition of larger aircraft and more travelers, OGS transitioned from a Category IV airport to a Category III, and its security plan changed accordingly. "We were going from three flights a day with eight-person Cessna 402s to an additional four flights a week with 177-passenger A-320s," recalls Airport Manager Patrick Sharrow. "We had to improve our entire security system, add closed circuit TV cameras and alarms on the doors-the entire security structure had to be beefed up and brought up to speed."

Three Years Later

Davis attributes the project's overall success to several factors: the Authority's willingness to assume upfront financial risks, the FAA's ability to operate at the speed of business and the community's enthusiastic support for improving the airport. 

Allegiant also recognizes the importance of local support for the project. "Without the Ogdensburg community's efforts to move this project forward, there's no way we would be serving Ogdensburg today," reflects Fletcher. "The Airport Authority worked very hard to make this happen, and we're extremely grateful."


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