Watertown airport's new $26 million terminal dedicated with dignitaries, festivities

Several kites took the air during the Kites, Flights and Bites event at the new airport terminal Saturday.
Several kites took the air during the Kites, Flights and Bites event at the new airport terminal Saturday.

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Watertown’s new $26 million airport terminal varied between the usual and the extreme Friday afternoon.

City officials past and present and South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Dusty Johnson, gathered in front of the new structure and did the traditional act – a large pair of scissors cutting a wide ribbon. Former Watertown Mayor Sarah Caron did the snipping.

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The officials and the large crowd then moved back into the terminal and looked out its east windows to get a clear view of the second ribbon-cutting. Watertown crop-spraying pilot Brady Fast maneuvered his aircraft low enough to snag a smaller ribbon strung about 50 feet in the air between two lifts on the taxiway.

Fast came in about three feet too high on his first approach, but it took him only a minute to maneuver his aircraft back into position — highlighted by a sharp, turning dive – and snag and snap the ribbon with his landing gear, thus ending the afternoon’s events.

Festivities continued Saturday with events that included airplane rides, music and food at the new terminal.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks during Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the new Watertown Regional Airport terminal
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks during Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the new Watertown Regional Airport terminal

Friday's speakers included Johnson, Watertown officials City Manager Amanda Mack, Mayor Ried Holien, City Engineer Heath VonEye and president of the airport board Dr. Gerry Rieber. Bryon Noem, husband of Gov. Kristi Noem, and Jon Coleman, head of business development for Denver Air Connection, which provides of air service to Watertown, also took their turns.

Watertown leaders praised for airport vision

The speeches carried a common thread – praise for the city and its present and past leaders for having the vision and determination to build the terminal. Speakers also mentioned the role the new building can play in providing individuals with opportunities not always found in smaller cities.

Johnson grew up in Fort Pierre in what he called a poor family that included five children.

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“Air travel for the family was entirely out of the question. We never once boarded a plane," he said.

But when a route began between Pierre and Rapid City and the airline offered a $29 promotional rate for a one-way ticket, Johnson’s parents put the then 8-year-old on a flight to the Black Hills for a summertime visit to his grandparents.

“As that flight took off, it was like my whole world opened up,” Johnson said. “Prior to that, I could not have imagined that little town of Pierre could connect me to the rest of the world.”

Johnson then noted noted other South Dakota cities similar to Watertown — Brookings, Huron, Mitchell and Yankton — have all lost their daily air service, not always because of bad decisions, but sometimes because of changing federal rules.

“They didn't do anything wrong. But other communities, they just weren't able to do what Watertown has done decade in and decade out, which is to invest in this airport, care about it, take care of business, make sure the enplanements are high enough so that it works with the federal system that helps keep airports like this alive.

“Because you guys have been able to step up and make things like this happen, there are going to be future generations of kids who are going to realize that their whole world is a lot bigger than they realize.”

Mack said when she first stepped into the unfinished terminal almost a year earlier she could see how visionary people who preceded her had worked together.

A love note to the Watertown community

“I've worked in a lot of communities through my career and not often do you have the visionary leadership come together with financial leadership,” she said. “And that's really, really important for projects like this. We've spent a lot of time over the last year talking about loving where we live and leaving love notes to our community. This is a really big love note to Watertown. This is a love note to all of you and to all of those who will come after us.”

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Rieber noted that he would have never envisioned the new terminal five years ago when the city was in danger of losing Essential Air Service, the federal funding that allows small cities such as Watertown to maintain scheduled commercial flights.

“We started this process five years ago. Lots of decisions, lots of meetings,” he said. “I'm just so excited to see this place open and to have the air service that we have. It's top-notch. We still have lots to do. I'm excited to see what comes next.”

Denver Air Connection, Lake Area Technical College working on internships

Coleman called the terminal “probably the nicest, one of the most beautiful” that Denver Air Connection serves. He mentioned that the airline and Lake Area Technical College are working on possible internships for Lake Area students majoring in pilot training and aircraft maintenance.

Henry Holien sits on the mezzanine observing the runway during the Kites, Flights and Bites event on Saturday.
Henry Holien sits on the mezzanine observing the runway during the Kites, Flights and Bites event on Saturday.

He also talked about discussions with Todd Syhre, former Watertown airport manager, about providing a free “joyride” for those local businesses and individuals willing to provide funding for Lake Area scholarships in aviation fields. Coleman said he was hoping to start with a $5,000 investment, but local officials managed to collect $30,000.

Former Watertown Mayor Sarah Caron cuts the ribbon during ceremonies Friday at the new Watertown Regional Airport terminal. Holding the ribbon are, from left, Jon Coleman of Denver Air Connection, Watertown City Engineer Heath VonEye, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, Watertown Mayor Ried Holien, Caron, Watertown City Manager Amanda Mack, South Dakota first gentleman Bryon Noem, Watertown Airport Board President Dr. Gerry Rieber and former Watertown airport manager Todd Syhre. Not pictured is Watertown airport manager Rob Cyrus.

He then read the contributors — Watertown businesses Active Heating, Gray Construction, ATY Aviation and Prouty Dentistry; Milbank’s J&J Earthworks and individuals Dr. Gerry and Tammy Rieber, Tom and Holly Arbach, and Brad Kirby. Also contributing were Mead and Hunt Architecture and Helms Engineering, companies that planned and designed the new terminal.

“We've been very proud, very honored to serve the people of Watertown and be their air service provider,” Coleman said. “Once we got started, it's turned out to be wonderful for us, and I hope it's been wonderful for you.”

This article originally appeared on Watertown Public Opinion: Ribbon-cutting for new terminal at Watertown Regional Airport