HIBBING — Range Regional Airport had a record-setting 16,905 passengers in 2018, a 12 percent increase from the previous year. Soon the airport is expected to report another record-breaking year with 18,000 passengers for 2019. Such impressive numbers at the rural airport have garnered applause from the aviation community throughout Minnesota.
So, it came as a surprise to many when Shaun Germolus, the executive director, resigned (his last day being Nov. 30), packed his bags and made his journey down south.
His destination: Florida
Reason for stay: Become the new director of aviation for the City of Kissimmee.
A native of Frazee, Minn., Germolus was hired as the assistant administrator at Range Regional Airport (RRA) in December 2006. He arrived armed with a bachelor's degree in business administration that included a double major in airport administration and management from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. His prior experience working as the director of operations at the Duluth Airport Authority, operations superintendent at the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission in Virginia, and airport manager at the Worthington Municipal Airport in Minnesota lent itself well. In January 2008, less than two years at RRA, Germolus was chosen by the airport authority to replace his retiring predecessor, Executive Director Dave Danielson.
From there, Germolus and his assistant director, Barrett Ziemer, of Hibbing, would tackle endeavors that ultimately led to the expansion of the airport and uptick in enplanement numbers and financial growth.
New executive director: Hooked on aviation
This fall, Ziemer became the natural pick to step up as RRA’s new executive director. He accepted the position and started on Dec. 1. “I was very pleased and happy that the board wanted to appoint me,” Ziemer told the Hibbing Daily Tribune this week. “This is my hometown airport, and I did my first flight lesson out of this airport.”
At Hibbing High School, Ziemer enrolled in an elective aviation course that visited the local airport. He recalled sitting beside a flight instructor in a small aircraft and being told to taxi toward the runway and take off for flight.
Smiling, he remembered struggling with the mechanics of the plane. “The only movie I ever watched at that time was ‘Top Gun’ — but I’m not in an F-14 Tomcat — so I just grab that yoke and pull it all the way back, and the plane went straight up,” he said, laughing. “Then she said, ‘My plane,’ and she took over.”
By the time they landed, that was it. He was hooked on aviation.
In the years following, Zeimer would attend UND in Grand Forks and return home in the summers to work for Hibbing Chrysler Center. In 1998, he graduated with a degree in airport administration and took a cubicle job with a private jet company called NetJets, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. He eventually returned home to work as a parts manager at Hibbing Chrysler Center until the “aviation bug” bit him again. During that time, he met his now-wife, who was completing her masters in physical therapy in North Dakota, so Ziemer followed her back west, where he worked for one year with GFK Flight Support at the Grand Forks International Airport. The two married and moved back to Hibbing in 2005. He soon found his way back to Hibbing Chrysler Center. Three years later, the aviation bug had caught up to him, and he was named the local airport’s new assistant director.
As Ziemer told it, former executive director Danielson was responsible for many of the early improvements to the RRA and once Gemolus took the reins, he continued the work of transforming it. “Shaun brought it up to where you see it today, and my goal is just to keep going down that path. You really can’t just sit back and rest on work others have done.”
When Germolus took over, the Federal Aviation Administration considered the airport “non-primary,” meaning they were boarding less than 10,000 passengers annually. Non-primary airports received $150,000 of entitlements through federal funding for capital improvement projects, while “primary” airports received $1 million. Germolus “dug his teeth into” upgrading their status, Zeimer said, and in 2010, they added seasonal non-stop charter service to Laughlin, Nevada, through Sun Country Airlines. That was the year the airport achieved “primary” status.
Since then, the RRA has repeatedly broken its previous record of 16,905 passengers set back in 1992.
Germolus was instrumental in obtaining funding for several economic development projects: In 2008, Life Link III, a medical helicopter service provider, opened a base in the original terminal, which was built in 1942. RRA utilized various state agency funds to renovate the hangar to ensure the medical service continued to operate locally. In 2010, Midwest Aircraft Refinishing, an aircraft refinishing, painting and interior work operation, took over the space Cirrus once occupied. In 2018, the airport obtained state funding for an additional paint booth hangar.
During Germolus’s tenure, the RRA also welcomed electronic manufacturing company Detroit Reman-DMR into a once-vacant 30,000 sq. ft. speculative building seated in the Industrial Park. Partnering with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the airport expanded the building another 30,000 sq. ft. to accommodate Detroit Reman’s growth.
The RRA also turned its sights inward. To better handle the processing of passengers and luggage, in 2015, the airport underwent an $18.1 million project that increased terminal space from 8,900 sq. ft. to 21,000 sq. ft.
Last year, the RRA also installed new runway lighting, adding LED taxiway lights and all new directional signs. In addition, the airport renovated the parking lot and added 100 new parking spots.
“Shaun put his best foot forward every day he was here,” Ziemer said.
In a recent phone interview, Germolus told the HDT that when he started in 2006, he had several goals in mind: increase air service, enhance economic development and create jobs. “We’ve been able to accomplish a lot at the airport,” he said. “Barrett has shared a lot of those experiences and was a true partner throughout the whole process.” Germolus noted the support of the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority and the Cities of Hibbing and Chisholm as being contributing factors to their accomplishments.
‘This is my airport’
As Germolus settles down in Florida, he said he believes he’s left RRA in “a very good position” for the future.
“Barrett will do a tremendous job managing it, and we have some really great staff, and all of our tenants are really stable and growing in their businesses,” Germolus said. “It’s a really exciting time for the airport and we’ll see many other positive accomplishments to come at the Range Regional Airport.”
Looking ahead, Ziemer said the goal now is to develop a new airport master plan, one similar to a city’s comprehensive plan, in which they identify assets, areas of development and future capital improvement projects. He hopes to look into possibly expanding the length of the runway and further develop the Industrial Park.
“It’s just a nice time,” Ziemer said. “We’re not in the middle of any projects and we’re starting this master plan, so I can get that started and see it all the way through with our board and community and lay out the next five to 20 years for the airport.”
Remembering his predecessor, he grinned. “Shaun and I always wanted to put on the back of the business cards, ‘If it isn’t fun, we’re not going to do it. I always felt that this is where I wanted to be. This is my airport.”