Small airports soaring; Building hangars to help economic development

The forest-green C-130 transport shimmers in the afternoon glare as it floats impossibly delicately above the runway, touches down, and revs its engines to gain altitude for another go-round of landing practice.

Near the terminal at Millington Regional Jetport, another military aircraft, a T-38 trainer, sits with its twin canopies yawning open, waiting for its next flight down the 8,000-foot runway the city airport shares with the military.

These are old sights for Millington, that city of wings, which has had a long and prosperous love affair with military aviation. But airports like this one, in order to thrive, are looking for new relationships.

Tracy Williams, the airport's executive director, doesn't look toward the runway to see the future. She points at two corporate hangars, with two more on the way. "I think that's our thrust. That will set us apart," she says.

Global demands on businesses have made access to a local airport increasingly important in a company's strategy, as well as being part of the puzzle for communities trying to attract such employers. It's not just Fortune 500 firms that need quick access to a corporate jet these days.

Mike Philpot is executive director of the West Tennessee Industrial Association. His job is to help find sites for businesses that want to locate here, the kind of companies that pay well and become anchors for a community.

"In this 24-7 world of ours, the ability to fly parts or technicians in and out can be a real benefit for some of these more rural locations," he said.

Allan Rose, vice president of Rose Construction Inc. in Covington, can attest to that. His firm has two planes in hangars at Covington Municipal Airport.

"It's been really convenient, for sure," said Rose, whose company uses its planes for business four to six times a month.

Rose said his employees could take commercial flights, but often that means hours waiting at Memphis International Airport, then a flight to another big airport, and then an hour or two drive to reach their destination.

"It gives clients a sense of closeness to us, the fact that they can call us, and we can be there within 5 miles of their door within a few hours," he said. "Sometimes it's little things like this that help sell your company."

In Oakland, Ben Livingston is president of Ring Container Technologies Inc. His firm has two planes at the Olive Branch Airport, which he said is a good location in the area for his employees who need to fly.

"We have 18 manufacturing plants in the U.S., and we're putting one in Canada, and they are typically not right in a major metropolitan area - close to it, but not in it," he said. "So we end up flying into relatively small airports. It saves us a lot of time, and sometimes money."

Mark Fidler manages the Fayette County Airport near Somerville. His facility, which has a 5,000-foot runway that can handle private jets, in May received a $600,000 state grant to build 40 T-hangars. Already, he said, they've been leased.

"There's a waiting list for T-hangars at our airport," he said. "I wish we had the resources to build more of them right now."

Like most airport managers, Fidler looks to the future, particularly an economic development boom expected to come his way following the completion of the Tenn. 385 loop.

"That's precisely what we anticipate from 385," he said. "We're aggressively but conservatively approaching the development of this airport to meet those demands. These new hangars are the first step."

At the Covington airport, manager Robin Anderson said there are advantages to smaller airports that businesses and corporations appreciate.

"The access to them, getting in and out, is quicker," he said. "Fueling and stuff like that is faster and usually a little cheaper. I think the majority of businesses like and appreciate the smaller airports."

Count the state of Tennessee as a believer. In fiscal 2006, $36 million was spent on general aviation for small airports. That breaks down as $19 million from the state, $14 million from federal grant money and $3 million from local sources.

Airports also generate direct financial benefits for their communities as well.

"Airports mean business," Millington's Williams says, adding that her airport alone "supports about 100 full-time jobs. It supports about $4.5 million in income (and has) a $14 million total economic impact on the region."

All of the airport managers agree that a major advantage they have is that they are not Memphis International. They say the crowded airspace there, and the tighter, federally mandated security, make their facilities more attractive.

"The hassle factor doesn't exist here," Williams said.

At privately owned Olive Branch Airport, manager David Taylor has seen a lot in his 24 years there. His airport is the most active general aviation facility in the area. He believes competition among the smaller airports in the Mid-South has naturally led to specialization.

"West Memphis has a lot of freighters," he said. "Millington has a lot of military. We have a lot of business aircraft. Tunica has people in the gaming industry coming in there, so we've all got our little niche."

One thing small general aviation airports are working hard to change is their image. Most people, if they think of them at all, regard them as places where doctors, lawyers and business owners park the planes they own and fly them on weekends.

Not these days, Taylor said.

"Your little general aviation airports, those maybe more rural than we are, have an image as a playground of the rich in that community," he said.

"Here it's a little different. Naturally, we've got a lot of rich people using our facility. But they're not playing, they're working."

- Richard Kelley: 529-2300

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Airing the benefits

A National Air Transportation Association study in 1999 of the nation's general aviation airports estimated that annual economic benefits were:

Tennessee: $3 billion, 49,000 jobs.

Mississippi: $90 million, 1,380 jobs.

Arkansas: $369 million, 6,067 jobs.

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