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Runway project seen as economic boost

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Straighten out one lap around the track at Barron Stadium and you’re close to the distance that Floyd County plans to lengthen the main north-south runway at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport.

However, that 1,000-foot extension is one of the more expensive projects approved by voters in a special purpose, local option sales tax referendum last month.

The $64.9 million SPLOST package includes $5.76 million to take Runway 1-19 from 6,000 to 7,000 feet. The airport off U.S. 27 north, Admiral John H. Towers Field, is still considered by many to be one of Rome’s most important, yet under-utilized assets.

The runway extension was billed by SPLOST supporters as both economic development and a safety project.

Airport Manager Mike Mathews said the reality of it is that the project is about 50-50 — partly to improve safety for aircraft that currently use the airport and partly to allow a larger class of planes to land.

The SPLOST funds will start to be collected April 1, 2014, and the revenue will begin to roll into the county’s coffers in May. Mathews said he isn’t sure where the runway extension fits in the County Commission’s priority list, but he expects it to be somewhere in the middle.

Floyd County Manager Jamie McCord said the longer runway will put some of the facility’s untapped potential in play.

“The sooner you do it, the sooner you reap the benefits,” he said.

But McCord said it would probably be sometime in the spring before the county officially develops a priority list for funding.

The airport manager is fine with that but adds that there have been discussions about seeking some state or federal money to jump-start the project.

It’s possible, since the runway project has been a part of the airport’s capital improvement plan for a long time. There could, however, be a catch with outside funding — particularly if federal money is involved.

Mathews said getting federal money would most likely mean that a lengthy environmental assessment would have to be done. He’s wondering if such a study would be required if the project is funded without federal dollars.

McCord said it’s likely that a full study would be needed even if federal money is not used up front, since it would be used for maintenance in the future anyway. He also noted that the project isn’t quite shovel-ready yet.

“It is a big priority, but we’ve still got to do some engineering,” McCord said.

Build it and they’ll come

Mathews said that if the community has an economic development prospect in hand that needs the runway extension, the Federal Aviation Administration would likely offer a funding advance. Without an immediate prospect, though, getting the FAA money might be challenging.

“Once we build it, they’ll come. They really will,” Mathews said.

Heather Seckman, economic development director for the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce, has been attending the National Business Aviation Association trade show for the last several years, promoting the airport along with Rome and Floyd County.

“We have gone back and sent out letters to all the people we met with, to let them know the SPLOST passed and there is going to be a 1,000 foot extension,” Seckman said. “It will make it easier for our existing manufacturers to bring in parts. Suppliers or their executives, or customers who have large corporate planes will be able to get in easier. That makes operations quicker for them and time is money.”

The airport manager said the airport does have sufficient revenue in its account to be able to finance, perhaps as much as a $100,000 environmental study on their own, if such a study was still required.

Whether the runway extension brings any industrial prospects to Rome or not, it is expected to generate significantly more revenue for the airport in terms of fuel sales.

Tony Burgess is a corporate pilot for Hull Storey Gibson Cos., the firm that owns Mount Berry Square Mall. He flew several of HSG executives into the airport Thursday morning.

“Your allowable takeoff weight is based on the runway length, so the longer the runway, the more fuel (the plane can carry) — which generates more revenue for the county,” Burgess explained.

On the safety side, Burgess said that when it comes to aircraft like the HSG Beechcraft King Air and larger turbo props or small corporate jets, something called balanced field length is critical.

“That is typically the distance required for an airplane to accelerate to takeoff speed, have an emergency of some sort, then pull the power back and get stopped on the available runway,” Burgess said.

Over the last several years, corporate traffic has been a huge factor in the financial success of Richard B. Russell Regional Airport. General aviation traffic — folks that just like to fly — took a hit.

“People were selling off their airplanes; people just couldn’t afford their airplanes,” Mathews said. “We had all those T-hangars and portables full and that just dropped off, but now it’s picking back up again.”

One of the general aviation pilots who hasn’t been tremendously affected by the recession is Alfred “Spanky” Carnes, who has three fixed-wing aircraft in T-hangars at the airport.

Carnes, who has been flying since 1969 when he was in the Army during the Vietnam War, confirmed that an extra 1,000 feet on the runway would enhance the airport’s attractiveness to new industry.

He said that, 30 or 40 years ago, the county had people in charge of the airport who didn’t know much about aviation. That’s changed in the last decade or two, he said, and it shows.

Mathews has plans for the North Terminal area that include as many as seven new hangars. He specifically would like to recruit an aviation maintenance company to the airport. While the economy remains somewhat slow, he said, there is a lot of interest in rehabilitating older aircraft.

As the keyholder to Rome’s aerial front door, Mathews said he is aware of a number of industrial prospects who have visited Rome. And he believes that if the runway extension had been in place and the North Terminal improvements completed, the county would have landed, no pun intended, one or more of them.