WILLISTON, N.D. — Williston leaders said they're building for the future as they broke ground Monday on a new regional airport.
Construction will begin this week on the $240 million Williston Basin International Airport, projected to be complete by the third quarter of 2019, said Airport Director Steven Kjergaard.
"This is going to be an amazing addition to your community for decades to come," said Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who attended a groundbreaking ceremony Monday along with North Dakota's congressional delegation.
Williston has outgrown its current Sloulin Field International Airport, which saw less than 10,000 annual commercial airline boardings a decade ago. Although boardings are down from the 2014 peak of nearly 120,000, the demand for air service still far exceeds what Williston saw before the oil boom.
The new airport will have four gates and feature a 7,500-foot main runway to accommodate larger airplanes.
"We'll be able to attract more airlines and have the ability to provide better service," Kjergaard said.
Williston currently has United and Delta service that provide five flights a day to Minneapolis and Denver. During the height of the oil boom, Williston had 11 commercial flights a day, including a direct flight to Houston.
As the airport expands to accommodate 165-passenger aircraft, Allegiant Air is "highly interested" and officials are in talks with other airlines as well, Kjergaard said.
Discussions for the airport, which began in 2011, included a possible expansion of the existing airport instead of relocating it. But the cost to expand the current landlocked airport and bring it into compliance with safety standards was comparable with the cost of building a new airport.
"It just didn't make sense to stay where we're at," said Kyle Wanner, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.
The new airport, five miles north of Williston off the new Highway 85 bypass, will also bring benefits for general aviation, charter aircraft, cargo service and potentially unmanned aerial vehicles, Wanner said.
"We need to look to the future," Wanner said.
Regional economic development officials said the new airport will be critical for supporting and attracting businesses.
"Travelers having direct access is a big deal for us," McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder said. "It's close enough to us to really make a difference."
The Federal Aviation Administration is funding about half of the project cost and the city of Williston and the state of North Dakota are sharing the remainder of the cost.
Among those who gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony on Monday was the family of the late Dick Jensen, who once farmed some of the land that will become the new airport.
Jensen, a pilot, had predicted decades ago that Williston would one day need a new airport and the family farm would be a good location for it, said his daughter, Beth Christmann.
"My dad always said they will build an airport someday and it will be on this land," she said.
Williston airport commercial boardings
2016 so far: 50,847
Source: ND Aeronautics Commission enplanement figures through September