The Cherokee County Airport is getting a makeover.
The decades-old airport is in the midst of an expansion that includes a longer runway, a full-length taxiway and additional hangars that will almost triple the number of aircraft it can house.
The changes are more than just cosmetic --- the county is betting that improvements worth $32 million will attract lucrative corporate jet business.
"This is a major expansion we're doing right now," said Donald Stevens, a retired Delta Air Lines captain who heads the Cherokee County Airport Authority.
Located near Ball Ground, the airport is a strategic piece in the fast-growing county's economic development plan. Officials say improving the airport will help attract businesses --- and, therefore, more jobs. That would increase tax revenue.
"It'll be an incredible economic engine," said Mike Byrd, chairman of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners. "It will just do wonders, not only for us but for the whole region."
Workers plan to lengthen the 3,414-feet runway to 5,000 feet. The shorter runway is fine for twin- and single-engine planes, like the Cessna 414 that rested on the airport grounds on a recent afternoon, but insurance companies typically require corporate jets to use longer runways.
"Is it safer to have more runway? Absolutely," said pilot Dennis Berry, who flies in and out of the Cherokee Airport. "The longer the runway, the safer the airfield and the safer for the pilot's landing."
The airport has been trying to expand for 20 years, but money was an issue, Stevens said.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration typically pays for airport construction and expansion up to 95 percent, as funds are available, it was unusual for such a small airport to request $30 million, said Scott Seritt, manager of the FAA Airports District Office in Atlanta. That amount is equal to what the agency gives Georgia's 90 airports with no airline service in one year. It was "absolutely too much," he said.
The county came up with $15 million last year, and the FAA agreed to come up with another $15 million, which will start coming in shortly. The state added $2 million.
The enhancements should be a selling point for the 700-acre Bluffs in northern Canton, a technology park that is trying to attract tenants.
"The airport's going to be a tremendous asset to the companies that we intend to attract to the Bluffs," said Mark Mallard, principal of TPA Realty Services, which is developing the park.
The airport expansion is already under way. The airport has been buying land for years. Currently, the new taxiway is being built. It should be finished in about a year. The improvements are under a five-year plan, but the county is aiming to finish the airport in three to four years, Stevens said.
The county is expected to benefit from property taxes collected from multimillion-dollar corporate jets. A $1 million jet based at the airport for more than 180 days pays about $10,000 in taxes, said Coleman Sutton, owner of S&S Aviation Co.
Plus, these jets burn more fuel, which means the county should collect more in sales taxes."It's a win-win situation," Stevens said.
About 100 aircraft are now housed in the hangars and outside. The expansion will increase capacity to 300 airplanes.
"We're full. We can't accommodate any other airplanes," Stevens said. He insists the demand is there. "Once we bring the hangars here, we'll be full."
A model for the Cherokee airport is the larger McCollum Field in Cobb County, which has made improvements over the past eight years to become more of a business airport. The 320-acre airport is "surrounded on two sides by a business park," said manager Karl Von Hagel.
Last year, the airport made further improvements by lengthening its runway by 950 feet, to 6,300 feet, said Von Hagel. Although most of its business is still from propeller planes, the airport lengthened its runway to accommodate more corporate jet fleets that can carry more fuel.
The Lorain County Regional Airport plans to lengthen its runway by more than 25 percent, a move that could reignite concern in nearby Oberlin and its world-renowned music school.
Under the plan, the state would reimburse the city for most of the $24 million project over three to six years.
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