Barrow BOC hears input on airport

WINDER - Residents filled chairs, lined up two deep along the walls and spilled into the lobby of the Board of Commissioners' chambers Monday to hear answers about development at the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport.

Built in 1948 by federal grants, Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr. used the airport for years to fly to and from Washington, D.C. Since then it has been the domain of the Georgia National Guard, local private pilots, a flight school and a number of flight-related businesses.

Local officials have planned for years to upgrade the airport with long-range projects like a control tower, runway expansion and a sophisticated landing system. As some of the projects made their way from the wish list to fruition, rumors that officials were planning to build a "second Hartsfield" spread throughout the county, worrying taxpayers and nearby homeowners.

Monday, the Board of Commissioners and the Airport Authority faced the public and their questions in an effort to quash rumors and publicize fact.

The large room was at least half full of residents wearing red shirts to visually state their opposition to airport upgrades.

"Barrow County citizens will not provide you with any more tax money to condemn land," Gail Nero told the board.

Less vocal in the past months were people like private pilot Ed Larkin who favor airport upgrades. Having his plane diverted to Athens to land is inconvenient and expensive for the software consultant who works from home.

"I encourage you to finish the airport expansion as soon as possible," Larkin said. "I often wonder how long it will be before I move my home and business to Athens. I have no kids in school, all I do is pay taxes. I am the kind of business you need."

Barrow County's Board of Commissioners and Airport Authority expect to see the instrument landing system up and running by July 2009. Otherwise, plans to lengthen the runway to 6,500 feet are still on the wish list, said Don Holliday, airport authority member.

"When you are dealing with the federal government, you have to ask for things like grants years and years ahead of time," Holliday said.

Officials hope that upgrades will attract businesses with corporate jets to the area, thereby raising the tax base. Cargo and multi-passenger carriers are not desired, said Doug Garrison, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. Currently, Barrow County has about $500,000 in 1-cent sales tax funds to pay for airport improvements. Otherwise, officials search for grants for funding and a future special voter-ratified 1-cent sales tax fund is not out of the question.

Jessica Eversley has watched plans for airport upgrades for at least 11 years, she said.

"If I knew about this 11 years ago, what's the big surprise?" she asked. "A plane ended up upside down in my front yard. If he had had 1,500 more feet of runway, he could have aborted the flight."