Lofty improvements

GULFPORT - Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport Executive Director Bruce Frallic quotes one of his bosses when talking about the airport's massive rebuilding and expansion project.

"As Frank Genzer says, we've never been a bottleneck and we'll never be a bottleneck to the growth," he said lifting a line from one of the airport's commissioners. "We always want to be ahead of the curve in capacity."

The growing pains of the airport's terminal expansion are obvious, from the sometimes painful traffic flow near the terminal to the frustrating, ever-morphing parking lots to the under-construction terminal building.

But at the end of what will eventually be about $243 million in projects at the passenger terminal and across and beyond the facility, Frallic and his staff will overlook a vastly different landscape.

A $50 million terminal expansion will be the most visible part of the new-look airport when it's done next year. It will add about 80 percent more room to the concourse area, increasing it to 165,000 square feet.

Three gates will be added, bringing the total to eight in addition to two walk-down gates for smaller flights. One of the gates will be capable of handing huge Boeing 767 charter planes.

Progress is slowly revealing itself at the airport, with Hudson News moving to its new store beyond the security checkpoint. It opened Oct. 13 and on its first Monday did twice the business as the same Monday the year prior.

The Transportation Security Administration lines will move into the old store's footprint, opening up more room on the non-secure side of the terminal. An expanded food court also will be created.

The expansion to the east makes room for three new baggage carousels and new car rental desks. The entire terminal will expand toward the passenger drop-off/pick-up lanes, which will occupy the old road's footprint.

The lanes currently being used by all traffic will be used by taxis, shuttle vans and other commercial vendors.

Republic Parking operates the airport's lots and has an option to build a parking garage, which the airport figures will happen sooner rather than later.

Airport officials don't seem concerned with building a terminal that's too big. They're squarely on the optimist's side when predicting the Coast's future.

"You can't wait until you need it to build this kind of infrastructure," Director of Planning Jim Foster said. "You've got to look at the past history and it appears to be the same thing that's going to build it in the future. You have to prepare now; otherwise you're not going to be ready."

20 other projects under way

Not all the money comes from the airport's coffers, or even takes place on the airport's property, for that matter.

A $30 million FAA noise project is buying property, soundproofing property and giving money for overflight clauses to be inserted in land deeds.

The $70 million in federal grants awarded earlier this year are helping to build a new $42 million air cargo facility, which will be built on the southwest part of the property adjacent to a new general aviation. They will also pay for a $5 million rental car facility to replace the one that was wadded up into a ball by Katrina and dumped into a drainage ditch. Airfield improvements for taxiways and aprons will take up $45 million.

The airport has centered its stormwater control policy to handle a 100-year rain event, more than the 25-year event called for by law. It has an innovative $3 million underground detention pond to capture rainwater and allow it to leave slowly.

Another $1.5 million project on the Eighth Avenue entrance includes drainage to take water out of the Village Green community and drain it onto airport property, where it will eventually wind up in the Brickyard Bayou watershed.

"We're trying to set the tone for the watershed," Frallic said.

Officials see short-term and long-term benefits to the efforts, starting with the rebuilding.

"The positive is the stability of that construction work," Frallic said. "It's all sizes of work: small work, large work, horizontal work, vertical work. It's a whole variety of stuff. It's really powerful for our community."

Eventually, they see new trade routes opening up to Latin America thanks to the state-of-the-art air cargo facility.

The terminal expansion will be able to handle the expected increase in traffic necessary to populate the condominium and casino boom many predict.

"With the new capacity we're going to have at the terminal and on the airfield and in our cargo," Frallic said, "the economic impact to the community will go up dramatically."