January 7, 2022

Historic Chennault International Airport Seeks Transformation

Historic Chennault International Airport Seeks Transformation

A historic Louisiana airport might soon see a massive overhaul, thus creating thousands of new jobs over the next two decades, according to an Advocate article detailing the prospective transformation.  Louisiana officials are setting their sights on the potential transformation of Chennault International Airport and turning its two-mile runway into an economic engine for the Lake Charles region, an area that desperately needs the influx of jobs and revenue that would be generated by the airport’s proposed master plan.

The airport, which is located on the eastern edge of Lake Charles, has lived many lives over the past seventy years, and in many Louisiana circles, it’s been seen as a developmental pipedream due to the obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to transform such a large space.

Though Chennault International Airport doesn’t see any commercial flights, there has been no shortage of activity on its runway. Over the past year, Chennault has seen activity from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, military training flights, a World War II-era B-25 needing a space to be repainted, and Gov. John Bel Edwards landed in the area for an event in Lake Charles.

Since 2018 Kevin Melton, a retired Air Force colonel has operated Chennault as its airport director, and when speaking on the future of the space, Melton said, “We focus everything that we do on, not what works for us today, but: What do we think is going to work five years, 10 years, 30 years down the road? That’s what I care about, and that’s what I focus on.”

The airport is seen as both an enormous opportunity for growth, but as noted in the article by Adley Cormier, author of the local history book Lost Lake Charles, “having the longest runway between Houston and Cape Canaveral was at one point viewed more as an obstacle than an advantage.”

A lot of the excitement of the future of the space comes from an economic impact study that has been carried out for the airport by Stephen Barnes, the director of the Kathleen Blanco Public Policy Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Barnes had found that if the proposed master plan were to be implemented in full, then it could possibly generate up to 16,000 jobs either directly or indirectly across the next 20 years. In addition to the created jobs, it was estimated that full development of the master plan could also potentially lead to approximately $1 billion in tax revenue for the state and $780 million in sales tax revenue locally.

Barnes noted that implementing the full scope of the master plan would have its difficulties, but his study indicated that the public would be likely to “recoup its investment if around a third of the blueprint were carried out.” The total study carried out by Barnes operated on the assumption that about $285 million in public investment and $515 million in private dollars would be put forth toward the master plan’s implementation, and he noted that light manufacturing might be a considerable area of opportunity if approached.

Barnes remarked, “I think the biggest challenge would just be competition from other communities and other developers who are trying to compete in the same space. But I think there’s such a big upside potential that this could still turn out to be a smart investment, even if not everything comes through.”

In its lifetime, Chennault International Airport has been used as a school for fighter pilots in World War II, an Air Force base during the Cold War, an unofficial venue for drag racers, driver’s education, and much more. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that plans began to emerge for its economic development, but with the master plan for a massive overhaul of the airport starting to gain traction once again, it’s given some much-needed hope to the Lake Charles community.

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