Big plans with a big runway: Historic airport and former Air Force base seeks to transform itself
LAKE CHARLES, La. (Tribune News Service) — It's been a Cold War air base, a deserted strip used for drag races and driving lessons, and more recently a site for training flights and plane maintenance, including for Donald Trump's jet.
Now there are hopes to turn it into a money-maker, or at least more of one.
Officials want to transform Chennault International Airport and its two-mile runway on the eastern edge of Lake Charles into an economic engine for the region. Jobs and revenue from the site would be a needed shot in the arm as southwest Louisiana rebuilds from last year's hurricanes, though much work remains to allow the historic airport, itself damaged in the storms, to fulfill what its management team see as its potential.
"We focus everything that we do on, not what works for us today, but: What do we think is going to work five years, 10 years, 30 years down the road?" said airport director Kevin Melton, a retired Air Force colonel who has run Chennault since 2018. "That's what I care about, and that's what I focus on."
There are no commercial flights at the airport — nor are any planned — but also no lack of activity. On a recent day, military training flights and U.S. Department of Homeland Security aircraft buzzed along the tarmac, a World War II-era B-25 was being repainted and Gov. John Bel Edwards was landing for an event in Lake Charles.
During a drive around the airport's grounds, Melton jumped out to greet Edwards as the governor exited his helicopter. Then Melton was back, talking up a new cargo facility the airport is building and explaining the maintenance and restoration work that has long been part of the business here. He occasionally stopped to pick up trash along the way.
The opportunity here was not always as obvious as it may seem. In fact, having the longest runway between Houston and Cape Canaveral was at one point viewed more as an obstacle than an advantage, said Adley Cormier, author of the local history book "Lost Lake Charles."
But, Cormier said, "the potential is there" if ambitious prospects for the airport can be landed.
Former 'white elephant'
Chennault has already undergone several lives. It started as a school for fighter pilots in the World War II era and was transformed into an Air Force base in the 1950s during the Cold War.
In 1958, it was named for Major General Claire Chennault, who was born in Texas, studied at LSU and commanded the Flying Tigers. That same year, a B-47 with a nuclear weapon caught fire at the base, though contamination was limited to the immediate area, according to Air Force Magazine and Cormier.
The base was closed in 1963, with the land later divided up between various local government entities. It underwent a period where it attracted drag racers and parents teaching their kids to drive, among other unofficial activities, and it wasn't until the mid-1980s that plans for economic development began to take shape.
"It was viewed as a huge impediment to development of the east of the town because you had this runway that you literally had to shove over in order to get anything developed," Cormier said. "It was sort of a white elephant on Lake Charles' eastern side."
Officials eventually decided to use what was there instead of trying to overcome it. Beyond the remnants of the former air base, the airport also has nearby deepwater, rail and interstate highway access. Houston is about two hours' drive away; New Orleans is around three.
Its operations are now financed through a property tax, and it operates largely as an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility whose main tenants include Northrop Grumman, Million Air, Landlocked Aviation Services and Citadel Completions. Construction materials distributor Masonite/Louisiana Millwork is also located at the site.
Trump's Boeing 757 was recently being serviced at the airport, as he noted in a statement in May.
Following a deal involving a land swap with the city of Lake Charles, Chennault has signed a deal with the builder of Planet Fitness gyms to be based at the airport. The state Department of Transportation and Development recently named it airport of the year in the general aviation category.
While it may be best known to locals as the host of an annual air show, the site now employs around 1,500 people directly, and an analysis says that could be drastically increased over a couple of decades if the right pieces fall into place. An obstacle it is still overcoming is $130 million in damage from Hurricanes Laura and Delta to hangars and other structures.
One way it is seeking to reach its goals is by capitalizing on the boom in air cargo driven by online purchases. It is building a $4 million, 10,000-square-foot cargo facility, potentially expandable to 40,000 square feet, in hopes of offering companies a less congested and lower-cost location to move goods.
'Big upside potential'
Stephen Barnes, director of the Kathleen Blanco Public Policy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has carried out an economic impact study for the airport and found that, if its full master plan were implemented — a difficult achievement — it could generate up to 16,000 jobs directly and indirectly over two decades.
Over the same period, full development could also lead to around $1 billion in tax revenue for the state and $780 million in sales tax revenue locally, he said.
While it may be a tall order to completely fulfill the plan, Barnes said his study determined the public would be likely to recoup its investment in the site if around a third of the blueprint were carried out.
His study assumed about $285 million in public investment and $515 million in private dollars over 20 years. He viewed light manufacturing as one possible area of opportunity.
"I think the biggest challenge would just be competition from other communities and other developers who are trying to compete in the same space," Barnes said. "But I think there's such a big upside potential that this could turn out still to be a smart investment, even if not everything comes through."
The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago has tracked some of the growth in cargo airports. It noted in an analysis published in March that tonnage at cargo-focused hub airports grew 31.4% from 2019 to 2020.
There are obvious opportunities, but center director Joe Schwieterman said "the landscape is tricky for cargo airports."
"It's not as simple as 'Build it and they will come'," he said.
Companies such as FedEx, UPS and Amazon tend to need land in the surrounding area for sorting and transshipment, said Schwieterman, in addition to low congestion to allow for fast deliveries. Melton said Chennault's plan is to act as a short-term storage facility, potentially offering an alternative to locations like Houston and Dallas.
Either way, a full-scale redevelopment would add another layer of history to a site already steeped in it.
"If you're not going to change, you're going to be irrelevant," Melton said. "So my focus is to maintain our relevance in not only just the aviation market and airport markets, but in this economic development market as a whole."
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