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Cities compete for airport prize

p Rochester, others scramble to get in on the buzz

By Evan Ramstad

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- When the task force that guides the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport hired a consultant to identify problems with its cargo business, it expected standard advice: Fix a few things, measure the improvement, move on.

Instead, the task force got a radical recommendation that's become the talk of business and civic leaders throughout the state and, if implemented, will affect Minnesota's economy for years.

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Airport executives last year hired the Swiss adviser SITA Logistics Solutions to explain why the facility's cargo business was declining, contradictory to fast growth in the state's economy and the worldwide air freight industry before the events of Sept. 11.

In December, SITA reported the airport's cargo operation suffers from poor technology and safety systems, underinvestment by carriers, night noise restrictions and its proximity to Chicago, which offers far more cargo flights.

The surprise was SITA's solution: Expand capacity by moving traditional air cargo to a new hub and upgrade that airport -- either Rochester, Duluth, St. Cloud or Willmar -- to take the cargo traffic that the space- and time-constrained Twin Cities airport eventually won't be able to handle.

Business and civic leaders in the four cities rushed to get more information from the state Transportation Department and Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. And leaders in Bemidji, Mankato and Owatonna asked whether they could get a piece of the action.

"It's amazing to me how quickly the buzz has gotten around," said Tim Penny, the former Democratic congressman who is chairman of the Minnesota Freight Advisory Committee.

When SITA's report was presented in early December, 120 people were at the meeting. Since then, hundreds more have listened to presentations by transportation department staff members and local airport officials.

The cargo twin

Whatever airport becomes the cargo twin of the Twin Cities airport is certain to grow quickly.

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Rochester is already deep into a runway extension process and has several major freight carriers operating at its airport.

In Willmar, the prospect is particularly electrifying. The town's own tiny airport is soon to be replaced with a new one with a mile-long runway. Now, the chamber of commerce is trying to determine what it would take to prepare the facility for the big jets used in air freight.

In St. Cloud, already a major trucking distribution center, the airport's runway would need to be extended for larger planes.

Duluth's airport, which for years had the longest runway in the state, is capable of 24-hour-a-day cargo flights. But local officials concede its 140-mile distance from the Twin Cities airport reduces its appeal.

For Steve Anderson, the chief cargo executive for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, SITA's report is double-edged.

It brought attention to the unglamorous business he oversees, but the report's outstate-airport recommendation threatens to shift political attention and financial resources away from the basic problem at the Twin Cities airport, which is how to move the freight of Minnesota companies farther faster.

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