The Watertown International Airport has seen huge growth in the past year, with a switch from nine-seater to 44-seater planes and direct connections to Chicago. Now the airport will be able to catch up on some overdue infrastructure, with a $2 million grant from the federal government.
The grant will fund the rehabilitation and lengthening of a taxiway, and drainage and lighting improvements. Jefferson County Administrator Robert Hagemann said the work is important as the airport needs to upgrade its infrastructure to match its growing traffic.
"It's somewhat of a 'Be careful of what you ask for, you might get it.' We've gotten it. So now we need to respond accordingly," Hagemann said. "We're looking to grow the transportation linkage with Watertown and the rest of the the world, and in so doing, from an economic development standpoint, that allows for a lot of real benefits for business attraction or retention."
Watertown and the surrounding area have seen a lot of growth in hotels and other businesses that cater to travelers, thanks to their proximity to Fort Drum. But Hagemann said these businesses can't rely just on the Army post to generate business.
"You've got to be diversified," he said. "Opening up the airport to the rest of the world is going to provide that opportunity for the local hotels, for the restaurants, for the travel industry in terms of car rentals, gasoline purchases, etc., etc., etc."
In the 10 months the airport has been offering direct flights to Chicago, 14,000 passengers have passed through its doors. That's 10,000 more than the Watertown airport saw annually when it was connecting with Albany. Robert Hagemann says the facility is on track to see 16,000 passengers by the first anniversary of the Chicago flights.