Once An Airbase, Now An Economic Powerhouse

Chennault International Airport recently marked its 25th anniversary as a world-class hub for the maintenance, repair, overhaul and refueling of commercial and military aircraft -- and as an economic powerhouse with a $5.5 billion economic impact.

Before that, the facility was a centerpiece of our nation's defense.

Modern-day Chennault led Southwest Louisiana out of the 1980s oil bust, when unemployment in Lake Charles soared past 16 percent. It provided thousands of jobs for local people -- many of whom retrained for new careers. It diversified the Southwest Louisiana economy at a time when any kind of jobs would have sufficed.

In 1987 the first fruits of local labors were completed, then celebrated: The successful maintenance and overhaul of KC-135 military tankers, planes that refuel military aircraft in mid-flight. The work was done by Boeing, and it came from a multi-year U.S. Defense contract. Over time, it was succeeded at Chennault by Grumman, which would become today's Northrop Grumman, and by a unit of EADS, which evolved into today's Aeroframe Services.

Now, 25 years after the first achievements by workers on that first KC-135 tanker, Chennault remains a central location for aviation work.

More to the point, that has meant jobs, and lots of them.

The total workforce at Chennault-based tenants has seen surges and dips over the past-quarter century, based on the national economy, but the overall picture is perhaps best illustrated by a study done by McNeese State University economists. In a sentence: Chennault has had a cumulative economic impact of $5.5 billion over the past 25 years.

The term "Chennault" may variously refer to the huge complex itself, which sprawls south of Interstate 210; the Chennault International Airport Authority, which governs, maintains and markets the facility; and the companies that lease facilities from the CIAA and create the jobs.

That interconnectivity has been in place for the past 25 years -- and it is rooted in an extraordinary display of political cooperation that made the creation of modern-day Chennault even possible.

A history of the area now known as Chennault International Airport shows repeated examples of what might be called adaptive reuse.

The U.S. federal government variously bought and leased Calcasieu Parish property for military use in 1941, for World War II, and again in 1958, for what would become a Strategic Air Command installation. The site was named Chennault Air Base -- in honor of Lt. Col. Claire Chennault, leader of the famed Flying Tigers squadron of World War II.

Chennault Air Base brought new people who Lake Charles -- and some of those families stayed after the base closed in 1963.

The Calcasieu Parish Police Jury sought to buy the property outright -- but after Lockheed Co. closed its Lake Charles operation in 1970, the parish decided to stop paying the $100,000-a-year-land note on Chennault. Then, in 1973, several local governmental bodies were given restricted deeds to various parts of the site. That breakup of the Chennault property meant that there were multiple governmental owners.

By the mid-1980s the idea arose to take measures to re-develop Chennault for economic purposes. The most marketable features were the unusually large runway -- 10,700 feet long and 200 feet wide, with concrete is poured 17 inches thick, enough to handle every type of aircraft flown in the world -- and the sheer size of the total property for potential tenants.

Reconstituting the Chennault property would mean the whole jigsaw puzzle would have to be put back together -- and in 1986-87, it was.

It was a partnership of unprecedented proportion as local governments agreed to pool their shares in the site in the name of desperately needed jobs. The effort extended beyond Calcasieu Parish as well. In Baton Rouge, Gov. Edwin Edwards secured more than $40 million from the state Legislature for infrastructure work . In Washington, D.C., Lake Charles Mayor Ed Watson and Sen. John Breaux were among those who successfully persuaded to lift restrictions and allow for economic enterprise at the dormant Chennault site.

By the end of 1986, the long-mothballed facility had re-emerged as Chennault International Airport -- the name was changed later -- with a governing board, a busy schedule of site improvements and job training at adjacent Sowela.

After Boeing welcomed the first KC-135, it was celebrating its first work milestones in 1987 -- and ushering in the era of aviation maintenance at Chennault.

Today, that work continues at Chennault marks 25 years of service to military, aircraft and non-aviation customers alike.

"We have about $232 million a year in economic impact to the local community," said Randy Robb, Chennault's executive director since 2008.

Northrop Grumman and Aeroframe Services maintain, repair and overhaul aircraft. Million Air is a fixed-base operator that welcomes everything from visiting charter jets to military pilots who stop in to refuel.Louisiana Millwork distributes doors, windows, mouldings and other products to retailers in the region. Habitat for Humanity's services also are based at Chennault.

Chennault's skies see more than 3,000 operations each month -- including takeoffs, landings and "touch-and-go" operations.

The expansions at Chennault continue. A multi-purpose facility was dedicated last summer. A new 112,000-square foot hangar is the current major construction project.



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