HIBBING - After flying into the new Range Regional Airport, passengers will follow the river to baggage claim.
The newly constructed airport terminal, which opened last month, was designed to feel like home to Northlanders arriving at the airport and to welcome newcomers to the area. To help give it that northern Minnesota feel, the design features a multicolored floor in brown representing taconite and white for snow and ice, with blue rivers showing passengers to the gate and baggage areas, explained Shaun Germolus, executive director of the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority.
Grass and reeds encased in glass panels add to the northwoods motif while providing a division between the passenger screening area and the gate area. Dark stone from the Hoyt Lakes area lines the walls. Wooden doors in the building represent the timber industry. While most buildings enclose steel beams, Germolus said they wanted to keep the steel exposed.
"We wanted to see the iron on the Range here," he said.
The mounted bear who greeted passengers in the old terminal has returned to its spot in the new terminal, but more animals from the northwoods have joined it.
A mounted moose head sits above a stone fireplace in the lobby. Hanging on a white wall in baggage claim, another mounted moose head is expected to become part of a mural to be painted on the wall later. Art and murals with a focus on the Northland are among the work left to be done, Germolus said.
The Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority Board wanted the design and the work to reflect northern Minnesota, said Board Director Terry Samsa of Chisholm.
"We tried to keep most of the work that could be done locally done by local contractors. As a board member, I feel like the design people and all the folks involved in that did a real nice job with depicting what the Iron Range is all about, everything from the rock that's in the wall that's local taconite to the design of the building with the wildlife," he said.
The Airport Authority Board has received positive reactions from area residents since the terminal opened Dec. 10 and is hoping the new terminal will draw residents who would otherwise drive to airports in Duluth or the Twin Cities.
"People can come to the Range Regional Airport. They can park for free and from there, go to Minneapolis and from Minneapolis, go anywhere in the world. We hope they use it and when they do the math, that they see what they save in travel time, meals and hotel rooms and parking, that it's worthwhile for them to use our facility," Samsa said.
Board Director Maynard Baratto of Hibbing hopes the project will bring some development to Hibbing in the way of a new hotel and prompt airlines to consider adding flights to the airport.
"This is one of the biggest monetary projects that's gone on in Hibbing for a long, long time, with the exception of the mines. This is state of the art," he said.
Double the space
Updating the design of the airport terminal wasn't the only change the airport underwent.
The $11.6 million project demolished the old terminal to make way for a new building that more than doubled the space in the terminal.
About 30,000 passengers travel through the Range Regional Airport per year, Germolus said.
The former terminal, constructed in the 1970s and renovated in 1994, was 8,900 square feet and had 35 seats in the gate area, he said. However, the airport serves about 150 passengers when both the Delta flight to Minneapolis and the Sun Country charter flight are scheduled around the same time.
The lack of space meant people were crammed into the gate area when departing. When passengers arrived at the airport, they retrieved their luggage on the sidewalk outside the building.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more room was needed for the passenger screening process, taking away some of the already limited space in the terminal, Samsa said. Germolus pointed out that baggage screening would occur in the lobby because there wasn't any other place to do it.
Samsa explained, "It was like a zoo around there. Both flights departed around the same time, and there was standing room only, and it was pretty hard to process people to get onto two planes," he said.
The airport outgrew its terminal to the point where the Airport Authority Board needed to make a change, Baratto said.
"It was time. The area was too small and once you'd gone through security, there was no place for them to stand or sit. It got full. The bathrooms were a problem. We just felt that it was time," he said.
At 21,000 square feet, the new terminal now has enough space for the equipment and personnel needed to screen passengers and luggage. and a gate area to hold the passengers of two flights at the same time, Germolus said.
It also has an enclosed boarding walkway for planes to pull up to the building instead of rolling a stairway up to the plane door for passengers to disembark outside the airport. The stairway made it difficult for people with disabilities to fly out of Hibbing, Baratto said. Germolus explained that the new walkway also is easier for elderly passengers who may have difficulty with stairs.
A new moving baggage carousel also means passengers won't be standing outside in winter collecting their suitcases from a pile on the sidewalk.
"We've got a luggage carousel and all the modern amenities of a modern-day airport, all done with a lot of local materials, U.S.-made steel," Samsa said.
The Airport Authority Board received a good return for the money it spent on the building, Baratto said.
The new terminal is phase two of a three-phase $18 million project. Other phases include a completed $2.5 million renovation of the taxiway and a $4 million renovation of the area where planes load and unload passengers, scheduled for 2015-16.
Federal Aviation Administration funding accounts for $11.2 million to cover the three phases. Other money came from state bonding, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The Airport Authority Board is providing about $422,000 for the projects.
Baratto credits Germolus with envisioning the three-phased project and working to find funding to make it a reality, including trips to the Minnesota Capitol to make a case for funding.
The original plan was to expand the old terminal, but once the Airport Authority received $5 million in state bonding, other funding fell into place, and it became more economical to construct a new terminal, Germolus said.
However, constructing a new terminal meant that a garage next door was converted into a makeshift terminal, and "it actually worked very well as a temporary facility," he said. He credits Max Gray Construction and Northern Industrial Erectors with staying on time and on budget, keeping use of the temporary facility to a minimum. Now that the garage is empty again, Germolus said they're considering turning it into a restaurant.
In moving to the temporary terminal and then to the new terminal, both the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration needed to move in a single day. Germolus said he was impressed by the teamwork and cooperation that took place to make the move possible.
"It was really seamless to the traveling public," he said.
The Airport Authority Board expected passenger numbers to decrease during construction, but the number of passengers departing the airport increased by 4 percent in the past year, he said.
The board hopes that the increasing trend continues. Airlines have downsized at other northern Minnesota airports when passenger numbers are down and Samsa said he hopes the Range Regional Airport will be a place that both airlines and passengers choose for flying.
"We do think that folks on the Iron Range should give the Range Regional Airport a try when they want to fly somewhere. Delta connects to everywhere in the world. We're there to serve them, and it's a nice modern facility and free parking," he said.