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Sonoma County airport’s $31 million terminal expansion project begins

A long-awaited $31 million renovation project that will add a modern, expansive lobby and terminal building at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is finally underway after more than 10 years of planning.

The new 40,000-square-foot building will more than triple the space available for air travelers, who have managed with an increasingly cramped and aging 1960s-era building with small restrooms and only a handful of flight ticket and auto rental counters. The new building will add state-of-the art check-in counters and kiosks, an expanded baggage claim, a pair of larger bathrooms and an outdoor dining area beyond security.

The project, supported by nearly $24 million in federal funding, is the latest effort to overhaul a regional airport on a yearslong growth streak, drawing in more carriers and routes serving major hubs, including Denver, Dallas and Phoenix. The pandemic has put a damper on that trajectory, but the new terminal will help meet passenger demand when it opens in 2022, said Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout.

“Really, we should have had this project a long time ago. The terminal was always undersized for the traffic we’ve had for quite some time now,” Stout said. “In two years, the traffic will be back, and the space will be available as it comes back. So it’s looking to the future.”

Reno-based Q&D Construction is handling the work, which kicked off with a groundbreaking ceremony last week that brought out a group of government leaders. They included county supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore, Johannes Hoevertsz, director of the county’s Transportation & Public Works department and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

“The Charles M. Schulz airport has grown over the last two decades from a once sleepy airfield to one of the most popular regional airports in the entire Golden State,” McGuire said in prepared remarks. “Today is a capstone for the airport that could.”

The project follows the completion last month of a $4 million passenger tent expansion that nearly doubled the space of the gate-side waiting area to more than 8,000 square feet. It also added a second screening line at the relocated security checkpoint and permanent bathrooms beyond the terminal.

Travelers wait for flights in the passenger departure tent at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, which was recently expanded by approximately 4,000 square feet. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2020)
Travelers wait for flights in the passenger departure tent at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, which was recently expanded by approximately 4,000 square feet. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2020)

The terminal renovation also builds on the $55 million extension of the airport’s two runways, completed in 2014. One stretch of tarmac was lengthened by about 900 feet and the second by 200 feet, improving the layout and safety of the runways while allowing larger aircraft to land at the airport, which sits between Santa Rosa and Windsor.

Before March, when pandemic precautions led to plummeting air travel worldwide, Sonoma County’s airport was poised for its 11th consecutive year of record-breaking passenger traffic. In 2020, it was on track to eclipse the half-million passenger mark for the first time.

In April, at the bottom of the pandemic slump in air travel, the airport saw a 96% decline in travelers. Since then, business has slowly rebounded, with more than 19,000 passengers traveling through the airport in October. Still, total ridership to date represents a nearly 56% decline from this time last year.

That’s not all bad, county officials said. Those numbers show people are traveling less and abiding by public health guidelines that stress staying at home and limiting travel to essential trips, especially as the holiday season hits and COVID-19 cases spike nationwide.

Fewer flights and bookings also could help speed the terminal project and bring it in at less cost because there are fewer people to accommodate during construction, Hoevertsz said.

“We’ll benefit at the same time by having the low traffic at the airport now because of COVID,” Stout said. “It’s a trade-off, but what it allows us to do is move in different phases … and do certain things faster and coordinate certain tasks. I think we were able to package a really good project at the right time to give a shot again to the economy and local construction workers, laborers and the trades that it is needed.”

All told, the county expects to spend just over $7.5 million on the terminal expansion, which will be paid off through passenger fees and other airport revenues. The project is scheduled to be finished no later than October 2022, Stout said.

North Bay Business Journal Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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