City commissioners Tuesday agreed to move ahead on a $1.9 million plan to improve the Lawrence Municipal Airport, but they also learned that their efforts to land a major tenant there will face stiff competition.
At their weekly meeting, commissioners unanimously agreed to begin engineering work on a project to extend city sewer service to the airport. The project is expected to cost about $1.1 million upfront, and then could cost another $800,000 once the airport attracts a sizable tenant.
Commissioners have been hoping that Lawrence-based DAR Corp. would be that tenant. DAR confirmed in March it was considering the Lawrence airport as the site for a new engineering and production facility for prototype aircraft that would be sold in China.
On Tuesday, DAR President Willem Anemaat said Lawrence was still in the running for the project, but that he also was giving heavy consideration to a proposal to locate the facility at the Salina Municipal Airport.
“If this Chinese deal happens, the Salina site is a very serious contender,” Anemaat said.
The stakes for Lawrence are high. The DAR project is expected to employ up to 65 engineers, mechanics and other technical positions in its first five years, Anemaat said. The average salary would be near $80,000 per year. Currently, DAR employs about 12 people in Lawrence. Anemaat hopes to wrap up negotiations with a Chinese company — and, by extension, the Chinese government — in the next couple of months.
The Salina airport, he said, is receiving strong consideration in part because it is significantly larger than Lawrence’s, but also because it may be easier to attract aircraft mechanics and production workers to the site. Kansas State University operates an aircraft production training program at the airport.
Lawrence city commissioners said they were still hopeful DAR would land in Lawrence, but said improving infrastructure at the airport was a good investment anyway.
“Aerospace is a big part of the state of Kansas,” Mayor Rob Chestnut said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there.”
Commissioners already have approved $600,000 worth of construction to extend a city water line to the airport. Work has begun on that project, which is expected to be completed in March.