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Next airport manager found

After nearly three hours of interviews Friday afternoon, the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission decided to offer the position of airport manager to Steve Wright.

Steve Wright (seated) interviews with the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission Friday afternoon at the airport. After interviewing three finalists, the commission decided to offer Wright the position of airport manager. (Brainerd Dispatch/Spenser Bickett)
Steve Wright (seated) interviews with the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission Friday afternoon at the airport. After interviewing three finalists, the commission decided to offer Wright the position of airport manager. (Brainerd Dispatch/Spenser Bickett)

After nearly three hours of interviews Friday afternoon, the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission decided to offer the position of airport manager to Steve Wright.

The commission conducted interviews with three finalists Friday afternoon and after about 20 minutes of deliberation, unanimously approved a motion to offer Wright the position and to enter into contract discussions with him.

The three finalists were:

โ€ข Steve Wright, of Greenfield, Wis.

โ€ข Matt Barresi, of Gaylord, Mich.

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โ€ข Anthony Dudas, of Williston, N.D.

Wright is currently the airport properties manager at General Mitchell International Airport near Milwaukee, Wis. Barresi is currently the airport manager of Gaylord Regional Airport in Gaylord. Dudas is currently the assistant airport director of Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston.

After the commission approved the motion to offer the position to Wright, it moved into closed session to discuss the details of the contract offer. Interim manager Bob O'Brien reported the commission later Friday afternoon extended the offer to Wright, which he verbally accepted.

The Wright choice

After interviewing all three finalists, commission members ranked them in order of preference, with O'Brien tabulating the results. One round of ranking revealed a clear preference, with a low point total being preferable:

โ€ข Wright, with 7 points,

โ€ข Dudas, with 11 points,

โ€ข Barresi, with 12 points.

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After revealing the results of the ranking, each commission member provided the reasoning behind the way they filled out their ballot.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said Dudas showed great enthusiasm and felt his taking the position would serve him and the airport well. Barresi was an incredibly nice guy, she said, and would do a great service to the community. Nystrom noticed how Wright lit up when he started talking about flying and smaller community airports.

"When he started talking about smaller airports, community airports, he just was almost glowing," Nystrom said.

Commissioner Marty Johnson said Dudas interviewed well and he was confident Dudas could handle the position. Barresi stole the show, he said, but he was concerned Barresi had won Citizen of the Year in Gaylord in 2014 and would be leaving the community soon after. Barresi was Johnson's top choice, with Wright coming in second. But he said he wouldn't have a problem if the commission selected Wright.

"I think both are very capable of the job," Johnson said.

Commissioner Don Jacobson ordered the finalists Wright, Dudas and Barresi, but the gap between Wright and Dudas was very close. Wright started off with low energy in the interview, he said, but warmed up dramatically during the course of the interview. Jacobson downgraded Barresi as a candidate because his experience is mostly in freight air service, as the airport in Gaylord doesn't provide commercial air service.

"We don't carry a lot of freight here, we carry a lot of passengers," Jacobson said. "And I thought that was a negative for him."

Chair Andy Larson ranked his preferences Wright, Barresi and Dudas, but Wright and Barresi were close. With Barresi's military experience in the U.S. Air Force, Larson said he would have "no trouble navigating the political waters." Wright really came on strong as the interview went along, he said, and gave him the nod over Barresi because "there's a steadiness to Steve."

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Commissioner Trudi Amundson said all three finalists could do the job, and ranked them as Dudas, Wright and Barresi. Dudas was good in the interview and appeared committed to staying in the position for a long time. Wright did improve as the interview went along, she said, and believed he would serve as an excellent representative for the airport in the community. Contrary to Dudas, she felt Barresi wouldn't stay in the position for a long time.

The commission also asked O'Brien for his preferences, which were ranked Barresi, Wright and Dudas. Barresi has real-world experience in both civilian and military aviation, O'Brien said, and is a dynamic person. Wright is very knowledgeable and a sharp administrator, he said, and became more comfortable speaking as the interview went along. Dudas, the youngest candidate, is up and coming, he said, and a very solid person.

Commissioner Gary Scheeler was present for the first interview with Dudas, but was absent for the interviews with Barresi and Wright, as well as the deliberations after the interviews. Scheeler told the Brainerd Dispatch later Friday he missed part of the interviews because he had a previously scheduled meeting with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Brainerd Public Schools about school facilities. He also had another previously scheduled meeting at 3 p.m. Friday.

Steve Wright

During his interview with the commission, Wright revealed his history with the airport in Brainerd dates back to when he was learning to fly in Lakeville and flew into the airport a few times, "because Brainerd was an airport with a restaurant on it."

Wright has been the airport properties manager at General Mitchell International Airport for 10 years. Prior to that he served as airport manager at Willmar Municipal Airport for five years. He has a bachelor's degree in aviation from St. Cloud State University.

The Brainerd position is intriguing because Wright said he feels attracted more to working in a small airport like he did in Willmar, as opposed to his current position in Milwaukee. He also has five sons, he said, and would like to raise them in a "very fine, wonderful Minnesota town."

Wright oversees the airport properties section of the airport in his current position and spends most of his time on landlord-tenant relations with tenants at the airport. He manages a staff of several people as well. He said he can get stuck in his office in his current position and would prefer to be out on the airfield more, which is why the airport manager position appeals to him.

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Smaller airports are going through significant changes in air service, Wright said, with national airlines consolidating and many regional carriers dropping off. Brainerd has done well to maintain jet service, he said, and it's great to see SkyWest Airlines flying in and out of the airport.

Brainerd competes with other airports in Bemidji, Duluth and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Wright said, so it's important to educate the community on the benefits of flying in and out of Brainerd. It involves speaking to members of the business community and informing people of the time saved from not driving to another airport, he said.

"I see myself as the airport director in a small community, you're the airport spokesperson," Wright said.

Wright originally wanted to be a professional pilot when he went to college and segued into airport management once he saw the hours required to become a professional pilot. Since then, airport management has been a passion, he said.

"That part fascinates me, how much of a community effort does it take to make an airport happen," Wright said.

As a manager, Wright said he's laid back and approachable. He prefers giving direction to staff and letting them complete the task. A mistake he's made in the past is not following through with them consistently to monitor their progress, he said, but he's learned from that mistake.

"Let them do their job, but always evaluate them, always have a plan," Wright said.

Wright's top three priorities for Brainerd are retaining commercial air service relationships, strengthening a relationship with the community and keeping strong ties with the general aviation community. In his first 100 days on the job, he said he would establish ties with city of Brainerd and Crow Wing County officials and understand those dynamics. He'd also tie into the business community and listen to what the airport needs are.

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"The first 100 days is more me listening to you and understanding," Wright said.

Background

Jeff Wig, who had been airport manager since January of 2013, tendered his resignation as manager in December of 2015. His last day as manager was Feb. 14. He took a position as vice president working in the area of economic and business development for the Initiative Foundation.

The Airport Commission in early January met with O'Brien, a longtime airport manager who came recommended by the airport's engineer, Paul Strege, and Kim Kenville, a University of North Dakota professor in charge of the school's aviation management program. A week later, the commission approved a contract with O'Brien to serve as interim manager, as well as conduct a search for a permanent manager.

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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