A 4,300-foot-long slash of cleared soil and hard-packed gravel marks the footprint of a regional airport under construction in the woods of Essex County.
Bluebirds cling to the broomstraw that grows along the shoulders of the landing strip now, but in time, local officials hope that airplanes also will fly in, with people, jobs and money.
"It gives us a leg up in getting business into the county," said County Administrator Gary Allen, who has watched Tappahannock lose altitude as a once-promising manufacturing center.
Two manufacturers have shut their doors in town. Southtech, a subsidiary of Canon Virginia, eliminated 200 jobs when it closed its metal-stamping and assembly operation in 2001. Then H. Warshow and Sons, an auto-parts plant, shut down about a year ago, eliminating 150 jobs.
"We've had such negative impacts and lost so many jobs, we certainly hope the airport will be a piece of the pie" to attract new business, said Lynn Wadsworth.
Wadsworth flies a Piper Cherokee 6 and is chairman of the Tappahannock-Essex County Airport Authority, through which the two jurisdictions have gathered millions in grants to help fund the airport.
Allen figures the airport will cost $13 million by the time construction is finished in June. Federal and state grants are covering 98 percent of the cost to buy land and build the field and 80 percent of construction costs for a small terminal.
Essex and Tappahannock plan to share the full costs of building hangers, which they will rent out, making the total local investment for the airport between $1.5 million and $2 million, Allen said.
That's cheaper than the maintenance and repair bills the two communities were facing with the existing 2,800-foot airport in Tappahannock.
Hemmed in by buildings and a water tower, its rudimentary field, which was built as an emergency landing field for military pilots in World War II, cannot be lengthened and will start losing its eligibility for federal financial assistance, Allen said.
The authority is building the new field a few miles south of town off U.S. 360.
Allen said no business or industrial prospects have emerged as a result of airport construction, which began late last year.
But regional airports can enhance a region's appeal, said Liz Povar, director of business development for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, a public-private authority that works through the state secretary of commerce.
"In and of itself, an airport will not quickly generate economic activity," Povar said, "but in the long term, if used as part of strategic vision, it can definitely be an asset."
Trucks recently were spreading $300,000 worth of a gravel a day on the airfield, which will be covered with asphalt in spring, said Chris Jefferson, project representative for Delta Airport Consultants of Richmond, which is building the field.
"It's going to be a beautiful little airport," Jefferson said.
The airport is designed to handle small aircraft up to 12,500 pounds, which includes twin-engine planes and small corporate jets.
A dozen individuals and businesses base airplanes at the Tappahannock airport. Allen expects many more aircraft owners will start using the new field once it opens in June or July.
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