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Williston attains purchase rights for new airport

WILLISTON--Dirt will begin to turn this fall on a quarter-billion-dollar airport project near the oil patch hub of Williston. The city announced Wednesday land purchase agreements have been made following months of negotiations. This opens the do...

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In 2009, there were 11,229 enplanements in Williston for the year; in 2014, there were 114,281. (PROVIDED BY SLOULIN FIELD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT)

WILLISTON-Dirt will begin to turn this fall on a quarter-billion-dollar airport project near the oil patch hub of Williston.

The city announced Wednesday land purchase agreements have been made following months of negotiations. This opens the door to a tentative Oct. 10 groundbreaking at the 1,540-acre site.

The project is expected to be completed in fall 2018.

"It's a major accomplishment for the city," said Sloulin Field International Airport Director Steven Kjergaard. "It's going to help this community grow."

About $18.5 million is expected to be spent this year on the project, including foundation work for the terminal building and initial work on roads and staging areas around the terminal. The construction bidding process is underway.

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Dollars from the Federal Aviation Administration will cover part of the construction cost, though airport officials weren't sure about the exact federal share. A total of $27 million in federal funds were received last fall, some of which was set aside for land acquisition.

Planning for the project started more than four years ago. Since then, Williston has experienced a tenfold increase in passengers-with more than 100,000 in 2015-largely due to record oil activity. Since the region's oil activity has retracted and enplanements have declined, some county officials have questioned the need.

Kjergaard and other proponents of the project have said despite a drop in passengers, the estimated $265 million project is still a substantial long-term upgrade to the city.

"The FAA has always supported the project. They support good projects," Kjergaard said.

The Williston city auditor said he didn't have the official totals for the purchase agreements because the deed documents are still being finalized by the city attorney. But some of the money for land purchases will find its way into the hands of Williams County farmer Blaine Jorgenson, who sold approximately 600 acres of his 1,100-acre farm outside the city.

Jorgenson declined to go into detail on the negotiations except to say, "I signed because I felt they were going to move into condemnation."

An initial and a second offer were made by the city in the spring. He said both sides were getting closer to where he wanted to be, but the city then backtracked to an earlier offer and dug in.

"I was disappointed with the way the negotiations went at the end," Jorgenson said, adding that he'll also need to pay a couple thousand dollars in attorney fees that the city won't be covering.

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On the upside, since ground won't be broken until October, he shouldn't have any problem completing his harvest.

The city has also been negotiating with the FAA for additional project funding to the tune of $120 million. The existing airport will remain in operation until the new one opens. Money from the sale of the old site for redevelopment, as well as ongoing airport revenues, should pay off the remainder of the construction cost.

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