From the Ground Up

Northwest of Atlanta, a new business aviation airport prepares to open

DALLAS, GA — Growing up in Paulding County here some 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, Blake Swafford recalls when the region was a quiet rural outpost not yet touched by sprawling urban growth. Over the past decade, however, the county has become the latest hot growth corridor for Atlanta. Recognizing the need for a county airport that could be a central component for future economic development, officials teamed up with the local Industrial Building Authority and state and federal agencies to create the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport, which opened in November 2008 and which will have its official public debut on May 1 with the opening of the airport’s general aviation terminal.

Comments Swafford, “When I went to school there was one high school in the county. Now we’ve got five high schools and a sixth is planned for next year. Paulding County has grown from 26,000 in 1987 when I graduated high school to today we’ve got around 140,000. That’s just a result of the growth in metro Atlanta, which has exploded in the last 20 years.”

Swafford was handed the task of overseeing construction of the new airport in 2006, following several years as director of transportation for the county. Prior to that, he had served as an air traffic controller for the U.S. Army and four years working for the LPA Group, a consulting firm which has also been involved in the design of the new Paulding County airport.
The genesis for the county getting into the business of airports actually is tied historically to the City of Atlanta’s long-term aviation planning efforts, according to Swafford.

“We are sitting on the corner of 10,000 acres that was purchased by the City of Atlanta in 1972 for a potential second airport site. In response to the city purchasing those 10,000 acres, Paulding County at that time created an airport authority, with the intent of trying to have some influence over the city’s decision to build a second airport here.

“Basically, nothing ever came of the plan to build the second Atlanta airport. The City of Atlanta still owns the 10,000 acres; they have no interest in building an airport here. I’m not sure they ever really did.”

Swafford explains that in 1996 the Board of Commissioners for Paulding County decided to give serious consideration to the feasibility of building an airport. The Georgia Department of Transportation had already identified Paulding County in a statewide aviation system plan as a potential site for a new airport. “We were at the time the largest county in the state without access to a general aviation airport,” says Swafford.

The Federal Aviation Administration supported the county’s efforts and funded a site selection study in 1996-1997. Following that, the county in 1998 put on the ballot a bond referendum to allow the voters to decide whether or not to bond the approximate $5 million that it would take to purchase the property to build the airport, explains Swafford. The bond referendum failed.

The airport project was tabled and did not surface again until 2002, when a new commission chairman and a new board took up the initiative again. “They knew that I had aviation background and asked me to meet with FAA to see what it would take to revisit the potential of building an airport,” says Swafford. “Essentially, the FAA for the most part said, you need an airport out there, but you’ve gone down this road once before. We need for the county to show that they’ll support the airport moving forward. So, at that time we locally funded an update for the site selection study; we locally funded the design and the environmental work for the project. And our Industrial Building Authority agreed to fund the acquisition of the land.

“In 2003, after producing all of this work to FAA and getting letters of support out of all the local and state elected officials, the FAA agreed to fund the project.

“Between 2003 and 2006, we completed all of our design work; all of our permitting; all of our land acquisition. We broke ground on the project in June 2006.”

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