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Airport still prime for growth

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The Richard B. Russell Regional Airport, Admiral John H. Towers Field, has long been regarded as one of Rome and Floyd County’s under-utilized jewels.

In recent years however, the development of the Georgia Northwestern Technical College Aviation program and a series of special events, including the Wings Over North Georgia air show and Rome Hot Air Balloon Festival, have brought new attention to the airport.

Rome Floyd Chamber Business and Industry Director Ken Wright and Economic Development Director Heather Seckman have been working for years to bring aviation-related industry to the airport.

The largest individual tract available for industry at the airport is right at 25 acres. Seckman said that most of the attractive property sits close to the Georgia Northwestern Technical College Aviation campus, north of the main terminal.

“They have installed industrial water and sewer lines over in that area,” Seckman said.

Seckman said the aviation industry has taken a hit in the last eight to ten years, particularly businesses related to general aviation. The Chamber has long been a member of the National Business Aviation Association and has participated in the big Maintenance, Repair and Operations trade show annually.

“A lot of companies and corporations have pulled away from aviation. A lot of corporations sold their aircraft,” Seckman said. “It’s starting to come back. Companies are realizing the time they can save by flying from Detroit to Atlanta in their own plane, realizing the time they can save rather than driving or waiting on commercial schedules. Time is money.”

The Capitoline Products building at the airport, which covers more than 120,000 square feet, has been getting a lot of looks, but the primary reason for that is that it is the only empty building of that size across the whole county.

2018 was supposed to be the year that the airport would expand its main runway by approximately 1,200 feet to around 7,200 feet and be able to provide a safety-net length for most corporate aircraft.

Contrary to some concerns, lengthening of the runway was not designed for the purpose of attracting larger aircraft or more aircraft, but to meet modern safety standards that are demanded by many aircraft insurers.

Money has been squirreled away in a SPLOST account but when the bids came in, both were not just over budget, but significantly over budget.

Floyd County Assistant County Manager Gary Burkhalter, who has taken on the responsibility of managing the airport following the departure of longtime manager Mike Mathews, is quick to point out that when the budget for the runway extension was pitched to the SPLOST Citizens Advisory committee back in 2012, construction companies were hungry for work and the length of the extension was pegged strictly at 1,000 feet.

Fast forward to 2018 and the engineers put out a bid package that was about 20 percent longer than originally budgeted and contractors have all the work they can handle.

That turned out to be a formula for bids that were well above the budget, so much so that the county could not value-engineer the bottom line down sufficiently to be able to award a contract.

Burkhalter said county officials are hopeful they can receive some additional federal funding for the project. If that does not materialize, there may be some talk about economic development money set aside. Economic development money in the 2017 SPLOST package could also be considered to round out the financing for the work.

One thing is for sure, John Cowman, head of JLC Air Show Management, wants to see the runway extended and operational in time for the 2020 Wings Over North Georgia air show so that the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds can actually land and be based at the local airport and not have to shuttle back and forth from the Dobbins Reserve Base in Marietta.

That would translate into a major source of revenue for the county since the Thunderbirds would then be able to make fuel purchases while in Rome.

The 2018 air show was the number one generator of tourist dollars in Floyd County, with an economic impact of $3.6 million according to the office of tourism.

The late summer of 2018 saw the airport host the Rome Hot Air Balloon Festival, which was beset by winds that were just a little too high to safely fly the balloons to the extent that large crowds would have liked to see. Several balloons were inflated each evening and some did manage to get airborne and put on a show that delighted the fans who hung around well past dark for the winds to settle down a bit.

Even with those high winds the Rome Hot Air Balloon Festival generated an estimated $1.08 million economic impact in 2018.

The aviation program operated by GNTC is now in its eleventh year. Jon Byrd was hired to start the program in 2006 and is still in the post today. He said the first students were enrolled in 2008 after the Federal Aviation Administration certified the program.

He is quick to point out that there are still lots of good jobs in aviation maintenance and repair all over the country.

“It’s a two-year program,” Byrd said. “The industry is hurting so bad that those students who completed the program and pursued their FAA certification, which is nine examinations, and actively sought employment ... we have a 100 percent placement rate.”

Of the approximately 221 students to enroll in rigorous program, 126 have completed the coursework and 39 are currently enrolled.

He said the program has students working in the industry all over the country from Washington, D.C., to Washington state and places in between.

“That’s one of the reasons that Delta chose us as a partnering school. They’re trying to figure out a way to replenish their retiring workforce,” Byrd said.

Byrd said the program hopes to bring a third instructor to join himself and Matt Corvey. That would enable the college to bring in another two dozen students for the program.

During the last week of February, the Floyd County Commission approved the hiring of John Carroll to serve as the new airport manager. He comes to Rome from a post as assistant manager of the Newnan-Coweta County Airport.

Burkhalter said Carroll’s experience at two different airports in Georgia, DeKalb-Peachtree prior to Newnan, plus his background with the U.S. Air Force and the fact that he has a pilot’s license all made Carroll stand out above the other applicants.

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