Watertown Regional Airport
Renovations taking flight as air travel increases on the horizon
Situated along the banks of Lake Kampeska and Pelican Lake, Watertown really earns its name. According to the last US census, the town is home to roughly 22,600 people. Initially, Watertown was established as a railway terminal, but now it is the fifth largest city in South Dakota.
It’s also known as the home of the Redlin Art Center and the Bramble Park Zoo. This prairie paradise is the perfect breakaway destination. Watertown Regional Airport (ATY) was established in 1935 by a local company that operated a scheduled service between Minneapolis to St. Paul International Airport and Watertown.
Recently, the airport underwent a major renovation and moved its operations from the older building initially erected in the 50s to a new facility. In its previous year, between June 2020 to July 2021, enplanements (passengers traveling in and out of the airport) were around 18,000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Currently, domestic flights operate between Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois. On Tuesdays, flights only leave for Chicago, and on Saturdays, only to Denver. These flights are only operated by Denver Air Connection. This has provided a massive benefit to the community.
“Denver Air is our airline of choice, as they continuously make an effort to keep ticket prices affordable. Otherwise, our community would need to make an hour-long drive to the closest flight out of the state. The next closest is three and a half hours away,” says Rob Cyrus, Airport Manager for Watertown Regional Airport, South Dakota.
By connecting residents to these massive hubs, Watertown is really connected to the world.
Watertown Regional Airport’s major upgrade of its terminal came about in August 2022. This upgrade is a massive feather in the cap of the city of Watertown, as well as the surrounding areas of South Dakota.
The new snow removal building was included in the major overhaul of the terminal building. For a city that, according to the US Climate Data, averages 35 inches of snowfall annually, this is needed to keep the airport operational.
With the addition of the new snow removal building, the airport can now keep all of its snow removal equipment in one place rather than spread across the 919 acres of the airfield.
On the airport’s radar for new developments is the airfield’s parallel taxiways, which will need to be upgraded over the next few years. And with its two large runways, 17/35 at 6,984 x 100 ft and 12/30 at 6,900 x 100 ft, it can easily accommodate larger commercial airliners, having Air Force One land on several occasions.
But for the moment, the airport’s management is just exhilarated about opening the new terminal building.
“For the first time ever, passengers to the Watertown Regional Airport’s terminal can sit down at a restaurant while waiting for their flights. Danger von Dempsey’s ATY can serve customers in the secure and non-secure sides of the airport,” says Cyrus.
Watertown’s new terminal building really redefines the airport’s role in the community. The terminal upgrades include a new jet walkway for passengers, which is heated for the winter.
The terminal is also large enough to split general aviation and commercial flights into their own separate areas. With a terminal upgrade of this size, visitors are often taken aback by the sheer scope of the enhancement for the city.
But this upgrade was done with surrounding areas in mind as well as the airport’s ability to connect to main transport hubs. The FAA supplied the lion’s share of the funding for the airport, which is owned by the City of Watertown, a public city government, and incorporated in the state of South Dakota.
“The FAA paid for 95% of the project, and the other 5% was paid by the city and state. The project’s entire bill was $26 million for the FAA, and the city and state funded $5 million,” says Cyrus.
Watertown Regional Airport operates as a Public Works Department within the city and is invested in ensuring that tourists to the city receive the best treatment.
The city is promoting the fact that Watertown offers fishing and hunting opportunities all year round, with a new ice arena being developed for numerous events.
Also, all city departments work very closely together and can easily communicate with one another about new opportunities. The airport’s new terminal project was completed to encourage businesses to conduct on-site meetings.
“We have around four to five industrial parks in the city that often conduct meetings with individuals flying in from Denver and Chicago. The airport would love to encourage businesses to schedule meetings at the new restaurant,” says Cyrus.
Currently, ATY aviation operates the fix-based operator (FBO), but they also offer private licenses. Lake Area Technical College has an aviation program for pilots and maintenance students.
All of these operators get along very well, even meeting up for daily lunches, and according to management, hosting a year-end function.
The lack of pilots in the commercial and private sectors is an industry-wide issue. Watertown Regional Airport is currently ensuring that students succeed and have the right connections to make it to the job market.
So much so that the airport’s primary carrier is interested in connecting with students. Recently, the airport, Denver Air Connection, and local donors have created a scholarship for the pilot’s license and maintenance programs through the Lake Area Technical College.
With the most recent upgrades, airport management is happy with the state of the runways and is proud of the ground staff being able to keep them clear of snow and ensure that there’s no ice.
While the airport doesn’t rest on its laurels, its positioning is perfect for attracting tourists to the northeastern corner of South Dakota.
“There’s not a lot of airports around us. Our location is truly unique for tourists and business individuals,” says Cyrus.
Watertown has many attractions, such as Terry Redlin’s local gallery. Regarding attracting new young talent to the industry, the airport took an active role in hosting an event last summer called, Kites, Flights, and Bikes, where Lake Area Tech students showcased their aircraft to youngsters.
“The local children were extremely excited to be taken for a quick flight and were smiling ear to ear when climbing out of the aircraft. Most said they wanted to be a pilot. There’s bound to be a boom in aviation. I’d say it was down to movies like Top Gun coming out and reigniting the passion for the industry,” says Cyrus.
Cyrus is new to his new role at the commercial airport, having been in the air force for 24 years. He has operated in numerous locations and worked with a diverse crowd of individuals over his career, and his role as a program manager at Hickman Air Force base in Hawaii prepared him for the job at Watertown.
Moving forward, Watertown Regional Airport’s goal for the next few years is to get enplanements up to 20,000 annually.
This objective both management and the city believe they will achieve sooner rather than later. And in the future, the airport would love everyone to fly ATY.
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Visit Watertown – www.visitwatertownsd.com
Visit Watertown, South Dakota, and get lost in the art and culture this city has to offer. Take a walk through the breathtaking Redlin Art Center, or a stroll through downtown Watertown to admire the sculpture trail and historic buildings. You won’t want to miss taking in a show or concert at the magnificent, newly-renovated Goss Opera House. Step away from the city and explore the tranquil beauty of the outdoors. Walk, run, bike, or blade the miles of recreational trail. “Come Closer” as you take a walk through the Bramble Park Zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Play a round of golf on one of Watertown’s two golf courses. Unwind from the day by catching a gold-soaked sunset while fishing or boating on Lake Kampeska. Not only is South Dakota’s fifth-largest city a hub of art, culture, and adventure, it’s home to more state-of-the-art athletic facilities, meeting spaces, and event venues than any city its size. Whether visiting for work or play, the team of professionals at Visit Watertown is committed to providing all the tools and resources needed to plan the perfect trip or event.
Lake Area Tech College – www.lakeareatech.edu
Lake Area Technical College is a #1 Two-Year College in the Nation acknowledged by the Aspen Institute for Community College Excellence. The campus is home to over 2600 students and 31 different programs of study. The college has a consistent 99% placement rate and is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.