updated 1/29/2008 11:56:42 AM ET 2008-01-29T16:56:42

The passenger terminal at Stewart International Airport used to be a parachute packing plant. One of the entry roads is lined with abandoned, boarded-up military barracks. New York City is more than 60 miles away.

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But the former Air Force base has a runway long enough to land a space shuttle, four times as much land as LaGuardia, half a billion dollars to work with and, perhaps, a bright future as a regional airport.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is converting the airport into what it hopes will be a state-of-the-art facility that attracts millions of travelers a year while serving as a relief valve for increasing congestion at Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia Airport. Officials also hope it can be an economic engine for New York.

"Stewart can be kind of a beacon for a lot of things," said Anthony Shorris, executive director of the Port Authority, which has a 93-year lease on Stewart and runs the other three airports. "An anchor for growth in the Hudson Valley, a major reliever of the other airports, a cargo and job-generating facility for a new economic growth pattern, and a demonstration of the potential for sustainable development in aviation."

Change is already unmistakable: A new exit off Interstate 84 and wide new access roads now lead to the airport. A 350-space parking lot went up in three weeks and new chairs abound in the baggage claim area.

The Port Authority took over the airport in November and said it would spend $500 million on it over the next 10 years.

Diannae Ehler, the airport's general manager, said with the arrival of several new airlines, Stewart will serve about 900,000 passengers this year, triple its 2006 volume. It could handle as many as 1.5 million, she said, and she is busily recruiting more carriers, passengers and cargo.

Currently, the only international flights coming into Stewart are charters, but Ehler said she will talk to overseas airlines during a trip to Europe next month.

Shorris foresees 3 million annual passengers using Stewart within a few years. The attractions will include an easy trip to the airport, plenty of parking, comfortable terminals and flights taking off on schedule, he said.

Dan Hurwitz, a 60-year-old math teacher at Skidmore College, recently drove 100 miles to Stewart from his home in Saratoga Springs because a flight to Sarasota, Fla., was cheaper from Stewart than from the Albany airport closer to his home.

"Parking was really easy in the credit-card lot," he said. "They told me to be here two hours early but everything's fast. I could have come an hour later."

The airlines, too, say they appreciate the differences between Stewart and the big airports. Skybus, which began flying out of Stewart to Columbus, Ohio, finds the airport "a perfect fit," said spokesman Bob Tenenbaum.

"Skybus turns its flights around in 25 minutes," he said. "At Kennedy or Newark or LaGuardia, you can easily wait 25 minutes just to land." Skybus is adding flights to Greensboro, N.C., next month and expects to expand further at Stewart, Tenenbaum said.

Shorris has pledged to build terminals, baggage equipment, offices, stores and restaurants that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions and which produce or support enough green energy to begin to offset the emissions generated by the planes."

Steve Rosenberg, a senior vice president at the environmental group Scenic Hudson, sits on a citizens advisory panel on Stewart. He said his group wants to make sure that Shorris' goals are met and that his comments are "not merely a catch phrase."

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