'Did It Work?': Improvements To Boost Business At The NEK International Airport

Sep 12, 2019

In recent years, the state has put a lot into upgrading infrastructure at the Northeast Kingdom International Airport, in Coventry. But those improvements were made in conjunction with expected private sector developments in the region which never happened. Despite that, has the airport seen a boom in business?

VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.

The Initiative

The Northeast Kingdom International Airport is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by wide-open fields with tall mountains in the distance. It's a few miles from downtown Newport and the shore of Lake Memphremagog.

It's not an airport that offers commercial flights, but you can take flying lessons, air tours and rent a plane. There are also more than a dozen hangars, and private jets sometimes land there. And, fun fact, the airport and nearby farm were used by the band Phish for their "final" concert in 2004. (The band has since reunited.)

The state's work included extending the runway, building a parallel taxiway, a septic system and facilities to hold snow removal equipment. All together, the improvements cost $20 million and were funded mostly by Federal Aviation Administration grants, though the state did have to kick in some money.

State and local officials cut a red ribbon at the opening of the extended runway at Northeast Kingdom International Airport in 2015.
Credit Herb Swanson / Swanpix.com

The state's upgrades were to get ready for an economic boom promised by Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros, who ran Jay Peak and Burke ski resorts. In addition to several large developments in the region, the two men pledged to build a number of projects at the airport, including a terminal building with customs service, warehouses and an assembly plant for small aircrafts.

On a blustery day in November 2015, a line of state and local officials cut the ribbon on the newly extended runway, a state project.

The airport, with its new 5,000-foot runway, would support the uptick in business that was expected once Stenger and Quiros built up the region. At the ribbon-cutting, Stenger painted a rosy picture of the future.

"Nothing breeds success like word of mouth and the fact that we've got a beautiful runway, more capacity, we're going to have a beautiful terminal … It's going to be a very outstanding facility," Stenger said at that 2015 press event.

The expanded runway at the airport in Coventry, as pictured in June 2016. Two months prior, authorities publicly announced allegations of misuse of EB-5 funds planned for Northeast Kingdom projects.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR file

What Happened

As we now know, Stenger and Quiros were accused a few months later of misusing EB-5 investor funds in a "Ponzi-like" scheme.

Many of their projects — like the planned biotech facility and downtown redevelopment in Newportnever happened. And the airport projects — like the terminal building, the warehouses, the airplane assembly plant — met the same fate.

Those unrealized airport developments, along with the other promised projects from Quiros and Stenger, were supposed to bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the Northeast Kingdom.

Dan Gauvin manages the Northeast Kingdom International Airport and also owns Lakeview Aviation, which offers flying lessons, airplane rentals and maintenance.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

On a recent Monday, there were a couple of guys in suits and sunglasses milling around the airport — six private jets were set to land that day.

Dan Gauvin manages the airport and owns Lakeview Aviation, which offers flying lessons, airplane rentals and maintenance. On this August morning, he could hardly stand still.

He ran in and out of the small office building, giving directions to the airfield's crew. Periodically, Gauvin jumped across the room to grab the radio, which crackled with updates from the incoming jets.

Pete Gage walked into the office and looked out the window at the first plane, which just landed. When Gauvin told him six planes are coming in today, Gage chuckled and said: "Hope you got enough fuel."

Gage used to do maintenance at the airport — and he said that this day was a big day: "I don't even know who these people are. I'm sure they're some celebrities of some sort."

"We have a lot of cross-border traffic here," Gage added. "I mean, people fly in here, then they'll send limos from Canada down here to pick them up … I wouldn't even dare guess who's on those."

Dan Gauvin navigates his Cessna in 2015. "This year has been phenomenal for jet traffic," Gauvin said recently.
Credit Hilary Niles for VPR

In between jet arrivals, Gauvin stopped for a quick chat. This, he said, gesturing to the jet sitting outside, is what it's all about.

"I mean, to me if you build it they do come," Gauvin said. "They do definitely come. Yeah, so I'm ecstatic about it."

Gauvin said that extending the runway by a thousand feet means bigger planes, like the six arriving on this particular day, are able to land.

"This year has been phenomenal for jet traffic," he said. "I mean we've been getting in, pretty consistent, three [or] four a week."

Six jets in a day is unusual, but overall, the numbers are up. In 2012, a total of 11 large jets landed at the Northeast Kingdom International Airport. By 2018, the number had increased nearly tenfold, to 106.

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"There's a huge increase in the number that we're seeing," said Jen Davis, aviation operations manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

It's not just jets that are flying in more often — other, smaller plans are landing more as well and the airport is selling more fuel.

"Jet fuel in 2012 was 10,700 gallons, and then in 2018, [it was] 27,000 gallons," Davis said, "so there's a significant increase in jet fuel sold."

Did It Work?

Kind of. The state's work at the airport was done in preparation for Quiros and Stenger's promised developments in the region that didn't happen, including ones at the airport.

In one grant application, the state said 94 jobs would be created at the airport; a recent economic impact study says there are only 11 jobs at the airport.

A plane at the airport in Coventry, in June 2016. Data from VTrans shows that since 2012 there's been an increase in aircraft landing at the airport.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR file

But the state's efforts still kind of worked out because business at the airport is up — there's been about a tenfold increase in jet traffic since 2012 and fuel sales are really good. 

"This is just the beginning," Gauvin said. "It's only going to get bigger."

Not only was Gauvin, the manager of the airport, optimistic — so was pretty much everyone else who VPR spoke to.

But, they say, the airport still needs additional infrastructure, like a new terminal building, to reach greater heights.

Thanks to Vermont Business Magazine for the use of 2015 audio.

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While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of public money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.