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LAUREL — The government has caught on to something pilots have known for years: Laurel Airport is greatly improved.

The airport, which has seen air traffic growth in recent years, received an award from the Federal Aviation Administration last month for completing major airfield improvements.

In 1996 the Airport Authority finished a master plan which called for upgrading the airport. The 3,800-foot by 50-foot primary runway needed reconstruction and its length and configuration were inadequate for its growing fleet of aircraft, said John Smith, who has been elected to the Airport Authority for more than 30 years.

After studies and land acquisition, the airport broke ground in 2000 for a 75-foot by 5,200-foot runway with lighting and connector taxiways. Other projects included completing a parallel taxiway and expanding and rebuilding the apron and hangar access taxiways. The work was funded with more than $3.5 million in grants in the last three years, which the airport and community matched with $350,000, Smith said.

Today's facility is a long way from some people's early vision of Laurel Airport, Smith said. He recalled when the airport commission idea was presented in the early 1950s and one city councilman "wasn't sure if airplanes were here to stay."

Airplanes have stayed and more are coming. There are about 100 tenants at the airport and two flight schools.

"Being this close to Billings, you just can't help but grow," Smith said.

He estimated that the airport provides more than 35 jobs.

Airport Authority member Bob Wiens is part of a committee with representatives from Rocky Mountain College and other organizations which is working to fill more airport space.

The committee plans to raise airport revenue by renting space to plane owners or developers. Those renters would build hangars and receive long-term leases from the Airport Authority. The money would be reinvested in the airport, Smith and Wiens said.

"With the new runway and ramps and everything, it's really a nice facility," Wiens said. "It's got everything a small airport could want. With less traffic than Billings, it's starting to become real attractive."

The Airport Authority's about $50,000 annual budget comes from two mills from the city and rent income, Smith said. The Airport Authority has generally been able to save money to use as matching funds for the state and federal grants that make improvements possible.

One of the next improvements, with funding from the FAA, is purchasing a snowplow, Smith said. The airport hires two employees in the winter to keep up with plowing. If the budget allowed, there would be summer maintenance also. Board members donate their time to mow the grass and complete minor maintenance, he said.

The airport would benefit from a manager, even if that person were only employed part-time, Smith said. The development committee with Rocky students will develop a list of duties and try to determine an appropriate salary for a manager, Smith said. Typically in Montana, Smith said, a manager at an airport the size of Laurel's would do everything from snowplowing to helping set up contracts and "drumming up business" and other funding such as grants.

Until then, the elected Airport Authority members will keep doing everything from pushing papers to driving tractors, Smith said.

"Every member we've had has always been willing to do anything you asked," he said.

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