A 1,000-foot runway extension at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport will make Lawrence County more attractive to prospective businesses as the region shifts from manufacturing to a knowledge-based industry, officials said Thursday during an opening ceremony at the airport.
"I've told people that we have the best airport for a city of our size west of the Mississippi [River]," said Walnut Ridge Mayor Glenn Murphy. "This is a tremendous tool for recruiting." About 75 people attended Thursday's ribbon-cutting.
"It's taken a long time coming," airport Manager Ken Newcomb said. "We did this in several phases." The project began in 1994, when the local airport commission received a federal grant of $52,000 to resurface the runway.
Ultimately, the 1,000-foot expansion cost $3 million, with 95 percent of the money coming from federal sources. Another $3 million was spent resurfacing the runway, adding new lights and improving navigational equipment.
"This is the result of believing in yourself and your community," said U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who attended Thursday's ceremony. "What you have here is incredible. It is a state-of-the-art facility." In addition to providing a tool for business recruitment, Lincoln said the airport can also serve as a headquarters for military operations in times of war or terrorist attacks.
The airport first opened as a military flight-training school on Aug. 15, 1942. More than 5,000 men trained there over the next two years.
In March 1945, the airfield was decommissioned and used as storage field for military bombers and other aircraft. Later, the airfield was turned over to the city of Walnut Ridge for use as a public airport.
Ted Moskal, executive director for the Walnut Ridge Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the airport will factor in heavily as Walnut Ridge recruits industry.
In the past, manufacturing-based industries moved to northeastern Arkansas because of a reliable work force and local tax incentives. Now, Moskal said, more "knowledge-based industries," such as computer manufacturing, information technology and health care, are choosing areas like Walnut Ridge to locate.
"Businesses are looking at communities' infrastructure," he said. "They are looking at the area's schools, its arts and its entertainment opportunities." And also a large airport, Moskal said.
"This is the wave of the future," he said.
The airport will also be able to entice small airlines that offer daily flights to Memphis, he said. Arkansas State University has already used the extended runway to fly its football team to out-of-town games.
"We are losing population in northeast Arkansas," Moskal said. "And the wealth is declining in the area. It's not just a problem for Walnut Ridge, but for all the area. This airport can be the beginning of restoring that."
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