OWLS HEAD — “It was a wonderful turning point when you got here,” said Representative Dave Miramant, D-Camden. “We have moved into this building, and we have a real airport.”
On Monday, Nov. 18, local legislative representatives joined Knox County Commissioners and Knox County Regional Airport personnel in surprising airport Director Jeffrey Northgraves with a certificate of recognition from the state government.
Northgraves officially retires from airport management in late January 2020, having already purchased a Winnebago for his post-career adventures.
A previous South Thomaston Select Board member, Northgraves stepped into the airport role in 2004 as interim director before being officially hired for the job in 2005 by then-consultant and current District 93 Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland.
At that time, the region was divided as to the airport’s fate, putting weight on Northgraves’ shoulders from the start. The next project on the horizon was the terminal.
“I had seen some public comments about this terminal, and they were all negative,” he said.
In 2004, the airport was just a couple of trailers, according to Rep. Ann Matlack, D-St. George, and, according to Northgraves, designs for a new terminal showed a two story building – something appropriate for Portland or Bangor, but not within the field in Owls Head.
“The Taj Mahal,” said Northgraves, in repeating comments he’d heard at the time. “Why are you building the Taj Mahal? We don’t need a Taj Mahal.”
So, Northgraves and his crew slowed the project down and formed a committee to determine the best design to fit with its location.
“The interior and the exterior design is designed around the neighborhood,” he said. “It fits into the neighborhood.”
However, Northgraves slowed down the terminal project for another reason, as well. The airport had some clear safety concerns, and as important as a proper terminal can be, it still took secondary priority to safety. So, as soon as he could, Northgraves commenced a runway project.
To get to the end of the runway, aircraft had to taxi on the runway, “which is not a good thing,” he said. “We prefer they go on a parallel, and then get on [the other runway] ready to take off.”
Simultaneously, the property lacked fences and gates. People were driving all over the place, and animals were coming through.
“Safety-wise, the parallel taxi-way and the fence were probably my biggest accomplishments,” he said.
And just by happenstance, the timeline of projects became fortuitous, according to him. Both the taxiway and terminal projects ended up being financed with the maximum funding amount alloted to each project.
“The place this airport has now in the county – the economy, the relationships we have – have everything to do with Jeff.” said Beebe-Center. “When he first came in, everything was at sixes and sevens. Half of the people wanted the airport gone. The other half wanted it to be whatever it could be. And Jeff worked out the relationships, and worked out what we now have. And made this terminal possible.”
Now, a year later than originally intended, Northgraves will hand over the reins to one of the current applicants (applications are due Dec. 2). He told his audience that he stayed the extra year because he believed that this year he could attain a zero-budget. He came close, but couldn’t get zero. He stated disappointment, but his mood did not diminish.
“I think that anybody that comes in [next] has got a lot of good people at this airport to work with,” he said. “Both inside the fence and outside the fence. You can’t ask for a better maintenance crew than we’ve gotten over the last couple of years. They stand up to the winter like nobody has ever stood up to the winter here.
“I’m going out on a high note,” he said. “I have totally and completely enjoyed my entire time here. There are probably only one or two times that I can look back on it and say ‘I wish that hadn’t happened.’”
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