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Samantha Clemens / The Spectrum
The interior of the St. George replacement airport is photographed Friday, Nov. 5, 2010. SkyWest Airlines announced it will begin daily jet service between St. George and Salt Lake International Airport when the new Southern Utah airport opens in January 2011.

ST. GEORGE  — With Utah's Dixie anticipated to reach a near balmy 50 degrees on Wednesday, there's more reason than ever to jet off to St. George for some fun in the sun.

Beginning later this week, Salt Lake travelers can get there in about an hour on a jet because of the opening of the new St. George Municipal Airport.

An official dedication is slated for Wednesday afternoon at the facility, which will host an inaugural takeoff and landing and remarks by a bevy of dignitaries, including Gov. Gary Herbert.

Five times the size of the old airport and with room for expansion, the new $160 million facility will offer service to Los Angeles beginning in March and daily jet service between Salt Lake City and St. George.

The facility has been under construction since 2008 and has been 20 years in the making — born out a recognition in the 1990s by area leaders that growth would spur the eventual need for an airport large enough to handle jet service.

SkyWest and Delta have offered the twin-engine turbo prop service for years, but the old airport lacked an up-to-date instrumentation approach and did not meet Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements.

Pat Morley, director of the state Division of Aeronautics, said it's impossible to overestimate the impact of the new airport's opening, which he said is the first time in well over a decade in this region that a full-scale commercial service airport has been built from the ground up in a new location.

"This is a big deal," he said. "It will be a tremendous addition to our system of airports in this state. As population continues to grow in that area, this will have a significant impact."

Morley said the airport will help connect the southern portion of the state to other western destinations, such as Los Angeles, and provide enhanced service for travelers headed to Salt Lake City.

Daily jet service by SkyWest between Salt Lake City and St. George begins Thursday, said company spokeswoman Marissa Snow, and United Express service between St. George and Los Angeles will begin March 6.

Snow said it's been 18 months since that travel option has been offered.

Airport supporters say another reason to tout the opening of the new facility rests in the funding sources — which do not come from federal/state income taxes or local property taxes. Instead, approximately $127 million came from FAA grants, which are generated by airline users through ticket sales and fuel fees. Another $33 million came from stimulus funding, a Washington County hotel room tax, a city transportation fund and revenue generated from school trust lands.

Morley said he believes the area adjacent to the airport — which has been zoned for compatible uses — will quickly fill up with new development.

"It is not a matter of build it and they will come because the demand is already there," he said. "I think you will see this airport will be a model for other cities to follow."

A dedication and ribbon cutting at the new airport will be shown here.

Old airport:

•6,500 feet runway length

•Built on 274 acres

•Did not meet FAA safety requirements

•Not expandable due to mesa top location

•Lacked up-to-date instrument approach

New airport:

•9,300 feet runway length, expandable to  11,500 feet

•Built on 1,200 acres

•More room for general aviation and fixed base operations

•Will meet all FAA safety requirements

•Full ILS instrumentation and navigational aids will be available

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com