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In 2001, flooding closed the St. Paul Downtown Airport for 11 weeks. The City Council subsequently approved building a floodwall despite fervent opposition.

David Brewster, Star Tribune

Neighbors reach a truce with St. Paul's downtown airport

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • September 9, 2012 - 10:01 PM

Officials at the St. Paul Downtown Airport want to make sure the fights of the past remain bygones.

On Saturday, at the recommendation of the Downtown Airport Advisory Council, the airport will host an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving up hot dogs and giving bus tours of its once-divisive new floodwall.

Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft will be on display. Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) officials and airport tenants will be ready to chat with visitors about noise abatement, the flight school and traffic.

"It's good for the community to have regular contact with people at the airport and get to know them," said Jim Miller, a St. Paul resident and member of the Airport Advisory Council. The group came into existence after the floodwall discussions.

The community outreach comes after years of contention over construction of the floodwall, construction in the flight path and noise in neighborhoods such as downtown, Dayton's Bluff and Mounds Park. Tensions and divisive discussion date to the tenure of Mayor Norm Coleman and continued through successors Randy Kelly and Chris Coleman. All three supported the floodwall, but it wasn't until 2006 that the City Council approved 4-3 construction over the protests of neighborhoods and environmentalists.

In a sign of the altered landscape, Friends of the Mississippi executive director Whitney Clark said he's at peace with the floodwall, having seen it more than once from his kayak. For the most part, it's tucked behind foliage, he said. "I was wrong," he said of concerns the wall would affect the river's beauty. "I thought it would be worse than it is. Every time I paddle past there, I think, 'It's not that bad.'"

Clark still doesn't buy the argument that removal of a flood plain is without consequence. Every floodwall alters river flow, he said, and he still worries about increased upstream flooding because of the wall.

Flight limits

Noise was another concern. The airport now does quarterly testing of noise in neighborhoods and set up a hotline for complaints in multiple languages.

Coleman's environmental aide, Anne Hunt, said city residents succeeded in encouraging the airport to voluntarily use flight paths that follow highways rather than fly over houses. Although the airport is an around-the-clock operation, tenants have for the most part voluntarily adhered to a no-fly time between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. -- another sticky issue with the neighborhoods.

"It's an asset. The business community and the mayor and others felt that it was an asset to the city and the east-metro area," Hunt said.

One of the major tenants is 3M. Despite the economy, 3M keeps a brisk pace of flights for its sleek -- and quiet -- Gulfstream jets. (No Gulfstream will be on display Saturday.)

Greg Fries, on-site manager for the MAC, points out that the upcoming event is not an air show. "It's very low-key; come down to the airport and see what it's all about," he said.

Fees exceed costs

Built in 1926 on a flood plain across from downtown, the airport also is known as Holman Field and is one of six reliever fields operated by the MAC. The 2001 flood closed the airport for 11 weeks. If the airport were to shut down again, the land would revert to the city and its "natural state."

The airport cannot support larger commercial jets. The runways cannot bear the heavier loads nor are they long enough to accommodate them.

Takeoffs and landings fell sharply in recent years, largely becasue of the economy. Last year the number was 90,000, which is similar to other recent years. That compares to 171,000 in 2002.

But Fries said business is good and takeoff and landing fees are exceeding costs. He also said flight schools are beginning to see an uptick in business that has been down since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Miller, who joined the advisory panel last fall, said outreach gets people talking so that when there's a problem citizens can call the airport.

As for the disharmony of the past, he said he's not seen it. "I've been impressed with the airport officials; they show up at the meetings and listen attentively," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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