Assistant airport manager Jennifer Jensen and County Commissioner John Jones stand on the newly-rebuilt main runway.
Most anyone who looked at the Carbon County Airport 15 years ago would have seen a facility in shambles. A facility fraught with problems, and falling farther and farther away from what the Federal Aviation Administration would consider acceptable. The runways, fueling stations, lack of taxi area or apron and rancid reputation made it a liability for the county and anyone involved with it.
Mark Francis saw something else. For Francis, the property just north of Price had the potential to become a major resource for the Castle Country, and all he needed was the chance to make that happen.
Francis got that chance as he became the Airport's Manager in 1999.
"The place was in shambles when he took over," said Jennifer Jensen, the airport's assistant manager, speaking from stories she has heard and her own experiences before taking the assistant's job seven years ago. "The reputation was pretty bad out here and it wasn't far from true."
According to Jensen and Carbon County Commissioner John Jones, who began overseeing the facility when Commissioner Bill Krompel retired, that reputation began to change as soon as Francis took the job.
"He got rid of a lot of the things that were wrong with this place right off the bat," said Jones as we toured the airport recently. "From personnel to equipment and systems, Mark started making sure things were done the right way as soon as he started here. Bill (Commissioner Krompel) would often speak of the job Francis was doing."
And there was a great deal to be done.
"Let me put it to you like this, my first day as a commissioner, the terminal burned to the ground," said former Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich. "And it went down hill for four years after that."
According to Milovich, the airport suffered from ailments including pilots that wanted to cause fights after landing to inadequate landing lights and radar.
"When we asked for applications for the position, Mark rose right to the top," he continued. "He had a vision for what that airport could mean to this area and he has spent the last 15 years making it happen. He had a pecking order of what needed to be done and he started immediately."
Runway improvements as well as safety equipment and amenities for pilots was at the top of that list.
According to Jensen, Carbon County can be a difficult place to land because of the changes in wind direction and wind speed.
"Pilots like to land while flying into the wind and if they can't do that, especially in some of these smaller planes, they can really get beat up pretty bad," she said. "They can actually flip their plane over."
Jensen explained the local wind patterns often forced pilots to land on the runway which needed the most work at the airport. Photos she showed us during the tour demonstrated the weeds which had infested the runway and the thin strip of asphalt which challenged incoming pilots to keep their planes steady.
Francis and his assistant at the time Angie Johanssen began seeking funding and putting in the man hours necessary to address these issues immediately.
For those who are unfamiliar with the airport, it is a much larger facility than the taxiway and terminal that can be seen from Airport Road. The airport is a two square mile property with multiple runways and hangers which house both local and out-of-the-area planes.
The airport's longest runway was recently revamped by Francis and the commission, making it the preferred landing spot of Gulfstream jet-owning personalities from President George Bush to Hunt Oil Executives to Dallas Cowboy's Owner Jerry Jones.
The runway project cost nearly $6.5 million, $6 million of which Francis was able to secure in the form of a grants from various organizations. Construction began on May 15, 2013. Crews would strip the runway down nearly 27 inches before rebuilding the runway with the correct fill and compact ratio. The runway now includes LED Reils, high intensity lighting and pilot controlled systems.
The pilot control means that landing pilots can turn the LED lights on, they stay on for 15 minutes and then shut down, saving the county funds on both electricity and bulb replacement.
The entire project would cost Carbon County residents only $300,000 because of the work Francis put in.
"The knowledge and passion Mark possesses has helped to provided millions and millions of dollars worth of improvements for our airport," said Milovich. "He brought credibility to our airport. He brought professionalism and safety and that has created jobs."
According to airport assistant Jensen, the airport literally did not have a taxi area when Francis took over. Currently, the facility has FAA approved taxi and aprons which will see even more attention this year as the south apron as well as utility area aprons will be rehabilitated and constructed with FAA funds.
Because of his accomplishments, Francis was asked to speak as the Carbon County Airport was spotlighted at the most recent Utah Airport Operators Association's Spring Convention. Commission Jones attended with Francis and was highly impressed with the manner in which the airport manager continues to represent Carbon County.
"That airport is a major part of our continuing economic development," said Jones. "That would not be possible without Mark. He has taken a liability and turned it into these airport operators feel is one of the best facilities in the state."