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Airport remains under construction as hunters arrive

Mitchell Municipal Airport's main runway remained under construction Friday as dozens of hunters arrived for today's start of the pheasant hunting season.

The reconstruction of the runway began over the summer following the announcement of $6.7 million in funding made available by the federal government's economic stimulus program.

An unusually rainy construction season hindered the work, and the hoped-for completion date prior to the pheasant opener proved impossible.

The ongoing project on the main runway means planes must use the airport's other runway, which has less taxiway access. Minor delays were considered possible Friday and in the near future, because the diminished taxiway access can add to the time it takes a plane to clear the runway.

Mitchell Mayor Lou Sebert said this week that, despite the closure of the main runway, he expected arrivals to proceed smoothly Friday.

"We're not expecting any significant delays," he said, "and most likely for most people, there will be no delays at all."

The Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau did its best Friday to make hunters forget about any delays they may have experienced. CVB workers hung a large "Welcome to Adventure" banner at the airport and handed out free can koozies, blaze-orange popcorn balls and dog biscuits to arriving hunters.

The CVB's focus on airport hospitality underscored the facility's importance to the area's multi-million-dollar pheasant-hunting industry. The airport does not have commercial air service, but it can handle large jets and provides the hunters who can afford that kind of travel with a landing point near the heart of pheasant country. Last year, about 3,200 people arrived at the airport during the months of October, November and December.

The size and condition of the facility is owed largely to the federal government, which took over the airport during World War II and converted it to a military air base. The facility was then turned back to the city in much-improved condition, and subsequent improvements have been paid for mostly with federal grants.

This year's $6.7 million stimulus grant for the airport is the biggest single stimulus grant for any city in the state thus far, according to the government Web site The site says Mitchell, on the strength of the airport grant alone, is the ninth-biggest beneficiary of stimulus grant money among 217 recipients in South Dakota.

Given the city's fortune in receiving the grant, Sebert said, dealing with the temporary annoyance of construction is not difficult. It's unknown when the project will be done, but he said the main runway could open within weeks.

"It's not the way we would have liked it, but it's the way it is," Sebert said of the project's delayed completion. "This is an improvement that will last for years to come."