The expansion will help firefighters battle North Woods wildfires as well as help bolster the local economy. By Pam Louwagie (Http://Www.Startribune.Com/Pam‑Louwagie/10645326/) Star Tribune MAY 30, 2015 — 6:52PM It may not seem like a large change: The runway at the airport in Grand Marais will be 800 feet longer and 25 feet wider, thanks to recently approved federal funding. But local officials believe it will make a big difference to northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The expanded stretch of concrete will mean larger-capacity, firefighting tanker planes will be able to use the Grand Marais-Cook County Airport as a base for fighting wildfires. As a side benefit, it will allow corporate jets to land and take off there in the winter months, when a longer runway is needed, airport manager Rodney Roy said. Phase one of the expansion project to extend the runway to 5,000 feet instead of its current 4,200 feet began this week.
It involves mostly ground preparation and has a price tag of about $2 million. The second phase, which will cost $2.9 million, will include pouring concrete next year. The federal government is funding 90 percent of it, with state and local governments pitching in 5 percent each. The runway will widen from 75 feet to 100 feet. Officials expect it will be completed by the end of next summer. “The main driving force of the entire project was to allow for larger firefighting aircraft in the Arrowhead region,” Roy said. As things stand, he added, for a fire right outside of Grand Marais, larger airplanes would have to be based out of Hibbing or Ely where the runways are longer. This spring fire season, Minnesota had three large air tankers on contract, including a C- 130, which can deliver 3,200 gallons of fire retardant per load, said Jean Goad, of the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids. The tankers are moved around the state depending on fire danger, and Grand Marais will be in the mix once the runway is expanded. When necessary, the new base will help firefighters get to some wildfires quicker and put them out faster. The price tag reflects adding 12½ feet of pavement on each side of the existing runway to ensure proper drainage, which means moving and redoing lighting on the strip.
The expanded runway will also allow for new marketing opportunities to lure people for fishing trips and other excursions, said Linda Kratt, executive director of Visit Cook County. “It’s a nice plane ride. When you think of driving up the North Shore of Lake Superior … imagine that by plane,” Kratt said. Officials hope that it may even help with job growth and economic development. While there is no commercial service at the airport, small corporate jets already land there in the summer, Roy said. A longer runway will enhance safety for them in the winter, when the runway might not be dry. That will help lure visitors to ski, snowmobile and have other fun during the quieter winter months, officials said. “It’s a big deal for us,” said Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce.