Columbia, S.C., Airport to Get $4.5 Million Upgrade

The $4.5 million renovation of Columbia-Owens Downtown Airport will be pretty much complete by July, transforming it from a deteriorating Midlands mainstay to an attractive gateway to the region, say airport leaders.

The project is looking so good that the S.C. Aviation Association recently chose the new terminal as the location of the S.C. Aviation Hall of Fame display.

"The airport sincerely desired to provide a home for our display in its new terminal," said Ken Holt, president of the S.C. Aviation Association. "(Owens Field) is a central location in the state, and it's in the capital city."

Plaques of 54 leaders in aviation with ties to South Carolina will line a corridor in the new terminal.

Two to three honorees have been added annually since 1991. Inductees will be added each year.

Each has at least 25 years of involvement with aviation. Honorees include three astronauts, the first African-American to receive a commercial pilot's license in the state and Owens Field's Jim Hamilton, who has managed the airport for more than 30 years.

On a recent afternoon at Owens Field, Hamilton proudly held up a prototype of his plaque.

As he shifted it a little to the left, a holographic image of himself as a young Army lieutenant appeared. A little to the right, and it became a current picture of him.

"I think it's sharp," he said of the improved facility, "and will make us one of the most professional-looking terminals in the union."

One third of the current honorees have ties to Owens Field.

But before the plaques can be hung, work must be completed on the terminal -- at 8,200 square feet nearly double the size of the current one.

An 18-unit hangar building and six corporate hangars are also being built, to supplement the current 94. That should help with the 10-year waiting list for hangars.

Hamilton said there are about 100 companies and individuals on the list.

Airport revenue -- along with federal and county dollars -- is paying for the work.

"This is going to be a flagship building for Richland County," said Greg Pearce, Richland County councilman, who has worked on the project.

Inside the new terminal, pilots will be able to shower and rest between flights in a pilots' lounge, complete with a big-screen TV.

Business people will access computers and phones and use work space in a business center.

And neighborhood groups can reserve a community room in the terminal for meetings.

It's a far cry from the old terminal with its peeling paint, sagging interior beams and water-damaged rooms.

"It's embarrassing," said Gary Varga who flies his company's plane in and out of the airport once or twice each week. "Believe it or not, this was once a showcase for the state."

Richland County Airport commissioners hope the airport improvements will spur economic development.

"It's the first impression some people have of the Midlands if they're here on business or here thinking about setting up a business," said John C.B. Smith Jr., commission chairman.

"It's important to have an attractive gateway to the Midlands."