Duluth airport leaders look to future as 20-year master plan gets underway

Ahead of a public open house scheduled for next week, the News Tribune spoke with airport staff who are working on the plan.

Three people walk to the James L. Oberstar Terminal on Tuesday afternoon as a Delta flight approaches Duluth International Airport. Steve Kuchera /
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The Duluth International Airport recently started work on its master plan, which will guide its work for the next 20 years.

Ahead of its public open house on Tuesday, Sept. 17 , the News Tribune sat down with Executive Director Tom Werner, SEH Airport Planner Kaci Nowicki and SEH Graduate Airport Planner Matt Stewart to discuss the plan and the airport’s future.

What is a master plan and why is it important?

Werner: The master plan is a long-term planning document that helps us lay out a road map to achieve our vision for this facility. And we really want the public and our stakeholders to help us in the formulation of that plan.

How will you go about creating it?


Werner: Gathering public input is certainly a key component of that. ... We've been doing that through the one-on-one meetings with key stakeholders. We do it through our technical advisory and public advisory committees that are made up of different compositions of different stakeholders, depending on the topic. And then we're also going to do it through a public open house that's upcoming on Sept. 17 .

Nowicki: And there will be other open houses later on in the project, as well. … We're hearing diverse voices throughout and (ensuring) that all of the stakeholders are also hearing those diverse voices.

Why are all those voices valuable for the project?

Werner: This airport serves a very, very diverse need for the entire region. You have businesses that call the airport home, and their employees provide for their families. … For folks that maybe don't necessarily work at the airport, but use the airport for transportation, it becomes a critical gateway to the world's economy and to loved ones and friends. ... (And there are) those that don't have any exposure to the airport — maybe don't use it to fly (or) don't work here necessarily — we still have a responsibility to be a good neighbor.

What does the future of air travel look like for Duluth?

Werner: I think what we found — in even our initial research and forecasting of traffic — is it's a very positive (and) a very bright future. Passengers service and our carriers (are) growing right now — that's certainly a good sign of how the airport is contributing to the economy.

And so how is the plan going to … wrap (future) into (it)?

Werner: We use our forecast to kind of give us a sense for what the overall trajectory is of any one of those ideas and try to model out (and) ask some very basic questions: Does our existing infrastructure help meet that demand? Is additional infrastructure needed? Does it need to change in some way? Is there a new type of travel or input into the airport that we aren't even considering right now that we need to plan for?


Even if we don't reach a solution, in this plan, we've had the discussion enough and determined enough of our due diligence to set the framework that we can solve those problems in the future.

How do you see the needs and demands of the airport changing in the future?

Werner: We will have to do something with parts of infrastructure, in order to meet that (growing) demand — whether it be aircraft parking space, whether it be possibly a future terminal remodel or expansion, which ... is feasible at this point to have that discussion. Demand for traffic is growing, and so we're looking at a new air traffic control tower to replace our aging air traffic control tower.

I think in the next 10 years, it's completely possible that we'll have another 1,000 full-time jobs on this airfield that aren't here today. … All possible because of the successful aviation cluster businesses that we have here. And because we're investing so much in the infrastructure, making sure that it's there and available for air commerce.

Tell me a little more about (the advisory committees), and their purposes in the master plan?

Werner: The advisory committee is purposely ... made up of a diverse group of ... community leaders (and) business leaders, that represent all facets of how the airport impacts the region.

And we really wanted that group to act kind of as our sounding board ... (and our) check on our work — to say that everything that we said we were going to do in this process, we actually did. … They're meant to kind of be that highest echelon of public input to make sure that we're representing what the region wants and needs for this airport.

What do the next few months for the master plan look like? … And then moving forward, what is the rest of the process like?


Nowicki: Right now, our big (focus is) … a lot of data collection. I'm getting that inventory of the existing facilities and services and who uses the airport? … What's our baseline? Where are we at today? … And then we're starting to have conversations with stakeholders about identifying what some of the facility needs are and how we might be able to meet those.

How would you define the role of the (technical) committees?

Nowicki: Those are meant to be really in the weeds, getting people to really dive into something with us at a deeper level so that we can get their feedback and their input and ideas and incorporate them in. ... But all of that … gets reported up to that advisory committee.

Werner: (With the) upcoming master plan open house ... we're asking the public to come and learn more and provide their feedback. We may receive comments that may spur on a whole other technical advisory group ... and we're certainly open to those ideas.

What else do I need to know?

Werner: This process is probably going to take another 24 months to kind of get through it. We'll be doing these technical advisory committees. We'll have a couple of open houses over that period to update the public on our process and get feedback at those times.

Nowicki: Any time we can find a time to talk to the public about the project, we want to do that. … whether it's chamber events or other local events where we can spread the word and share about the project and have more opportunity for feedback.

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