Photo by Corinne Nicholson
LAWRENCEVILLE -- With a vote to not only reject a proposal to add commercial flights to Briscoe Field but to also pull out of a Federal Aviation Administration privatization pilot program, commissioners hoped to bring a swift end to a divisive issue that has lingered over the county political plane for three years.
But many of the vigilant protesters aren't convinced they can rest, especially since they believed the issue was put to rest by a community response in the 1990s.
With elections coming in the next several months -- including non-binding straw polls already slated to be on local Republican and Democrat ballots in July -- and a possible lawsuit on the horizon, many wonder if the controversy is over.
Officials, though, say the end of the federal privatization program is a signal that at least current leaders are putting the issue aside.
"We're saying the privatization route is not something we are trying to do," Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said of the vote. "It's not in the foreseeable future, for sure."
"This would be the final step to close this chapter," Commissioner Mike Beaudreau added.
But that doesn't mean that talk of improving the 40-year-old Briscoe Field is over.
"(The issue) really made us aware that we have an asset that's been underutilized," said Commissioner Lynette Howard, who sat in on meetings of a citizens review board looking into ways to make the airport a "first-class" facility, whether it was privatized or not. "I don't think anyone can dispute that we should all use this asset further. ... It will make the area improve. It will make the community have something to work toward as a goal."
For years, officials have worked to upgrade the infrastructure at the airport, although any moves from the removal of trees to adding a wash stand depended on federal grants.
But while looking into the commercial flights issue, the citizens group advised the county commission to pay more attention to local funding for some issues, such as dilapidated hangars, and strongly advised leaders to push for federal approval to add customs proceedings at the airfield, which could draw more business jets there.
Those suggestions are being reviewed by county transportation, along with the airport master plan, Gwinnett government spokesman Joe Sorenson said, to create a business plan for the airport.
"That plan will be presented later this summer as a part of our annual budget process," Sorenson said.
Jimmy Norton, a former chairman of the airport authority who pushed for the addition of commercial flights as part of the Fly Gwinnett Forward organization, said he was worried that all of the negativity from those who protested the proposal would stifle those efforts.
"My biggest fear is they have left our airport besmirched and slandered and will no longer support it, as they had intended," he said.
And even with the votes to halt the privatization process, many of the protesters planned to keep an eye on the issue.
"I just hope it goes another 18 to 20 years before it comes up again," Terry Sossebee said after last week's vote, referring to the last debate in the early 1990s.