Two Plans of Attack

Jan. 2, 2006
As the Atlanta metro spreads out in all directions, two Georgia airports have seen concurrent growth.

WINDER & KENNESAW, GA — As the Atlanta metro spreads out in all directions, these two Georgia communities have seen concurrent growth at their general aviation airports. Yet, Winder-Barrow Airport in Winder and Cobb County Airport at McCollum Field in Kennesaw are on different growth paths — the former boasts compatible land usage and increased activity which, in time, could lead to regional jet service; the latter has seen an uptick in based jet aircraft, is nearing full capacity, and is focused on serving its GA niche. Officials at both airports see their proximity to the nation’s busiest passenger airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, as playing in their favor. Says Cobb County Airport director Karl Von Hagel, “We’re close enough to the congestion, but away from it.”

Winder-Barrow Airport is located some 50 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, while Cobb County Airport is some 25 miles to the northwest of the sprawling city.

According to Tim Whitman, airport director, Winder-Barrow Airport (WDR) started in the mid to late 1940s as a public works project. The “tremendous growth” that the airport has experienced began in the late ‘80s, he says.

Currently, the airport is in the midst of revising its master plan. “We’re evaluating everything from facilities to business practices to forecasting and looking at the big picture,” says Whitman.

The Barrow County Airport Authority is comprised of seven board members, all representing one of the districts in the county and one at-large member. The authority members are appointed by the county commissioner of each district.

In 1999, relates Whitman, the airport had “a good facility that needed some help. [The airport board] realized that the airport was an asset that was being under-utilized. The perception was there that it was just a burden for the taxpayers and a playground for the playboys.”

In need of professional guidance, the airport authority hired American Airports Corporation, an airport development/management company. Whitman, who was American Airports’ regional director at the time, was responsible for Winder-Barrow Airport.

“By getting professional airport management in here, American Airports was able to turn that perception around and show people that the airport is a business tool and an asset to the community,” Whitman explains.

The five-year management contract with American Airports ended in 2003. Whitman was subsequently hired as a consultant and brought on as airport director six months later.

Regional Growth Influences Airport Activity
“The airport is really growing in corporate and general aviation traffic,” says Whitman. He explains that the airport is in what he calls a bio-technical corridor between Athens and Atlanta. “We’re right in the middle of it. So we’re seeing a large growth of high-end technical companies looking at this area.”

To meet projected demand, the airport authority is exploring expansion. According to Whitman, Winder-Barrow’s master plan shows operations will continue to increase. “We’re seeing more and more activity from larger corporate aircraft, such as Hawkers, G-IIIs, G-IVs, Citation 10s, things of that nature. So one of the things depicted on the airport layout plan and also on our master plan we’re developing is the extension of the runway to 7,000 feet.”

Whitman says the airport is considering applying for the contract tower program. The airport sees some 70,000 operations annually, which is forecast to increase. Winder-Barrow’s capital improvement budget is approximately $25 million for five years. “We’ve been very aggressive and fortunate in getting grants,” says Whitman. A recent upgrade involved redoing all the signage and lighting on the airfield, which is now in compliance with FAR Part 139. The airport is in the process of a taxiway extension for the primary runway. In 2006 Whitman says plans call to begin design on a new taxiway and runway overlays; he’s “hopeful” that the runway extension will follow within a couple of years.

Part of the planning includes considering regional jet service at WDR, says Whitman. Perhaps a few years off, it’s an idea that has merit, he says. “We feel like this airport really lends itself to small, regional jet service. We don’t want to be a Hartsfield; we don’t want to compete with Hartsfield, it’s not our niche. However, there’s a million people population base within 40 miles of this airport and we can draw people from North Georgia, Gwinnet County to this airport. We have good access roads to get in and out of here; we’re not constricted; we have good land compatibility use.”

Airport authority officials have been very “careful” about development surrounding the airport, says Whitman, which leaves the airport in a good position for expansion. “Mostly agricultural land and commercial land is what’s around here,” he says. “The commissioners have been really conscious to make sure there’s compatible land use around the airport. There’s a lot of property that’s not developed around here that’s going to become great commercial value property that accents the airport and serves the community as well.”

The area is one of the fastest growing in the country, according to Whitman. He expects businesses are moving to Barrow County because “all the developable land is out here.” A four-lane highway was recently constructed, making transportation more convenient and, the cost of living is reasonable, he says.

“We’re right smack in between the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, so there’s education available for training as well as graduates for biotechnical-type industries, so that’s why I think we’re seeing an influx of all that’s coming to this area.”

Winder-Barrow is a participant in the Governor’s Program. The state program was formed under the idea that anyone anywhere in the state of Georgia should be within 45 minutes of an airport — with a 5,500-foot runway, an instrument landing system, and lighting. Whitman says some 25 airports were included in the program that grants state funding, with a 25 percent local match for projects to bring airports up to the standard.

Maintain a Focus on Business
Whitman explains that the philosophy of the airport is to run the facility like a business, “and develop both landside and aeronautical activities. That’s the only way that we feel like we can generate the revenue and put it back into the airport to get things where they need to go and be an asset to the community.”

The 360-acre, joint-use airport is also home to a Georgia Air National Guard Unit, 20 National Guard helicopters, and some 154 based aircraft. Tenants on the field include one fixed base operator, Romanair; a maintenance repair station, Rave Aviation; a Cessna certified flight school, Flight School of Barrow County; a restaurant, Spitfire Deli; and corporate flight departments.

The airport’s annual revenue is around $600,000 currently, but is projected to approach $1 million in the next couple of years, Whitman says.

“We operate on a zero-zero budget. Everything we take in goes back onto the airport.” He expects the increase in revenue will be due to a control tower coming online, the installation of an instrument landing system (slated to be flight-checked and operational by February 2007), and building corporate hangars. The airport is also in the process of installing the infrastructure for sewer to be available to the hangars. “So people can come in and build a hangar and everything they need will already be there. It’s kind of an aviation mall concept.”

The airport owns all the buildings here, with the exception of 20 T-hangars. “I think you get a bigger return on your investment in the long run by building the buildings yourself when you can,” says Whitman. “Not to say that if an FBO came on or a major manufacturer wanted to build something huge, of course we’d consider a ground lease. But as far as T-hangars and corporate hangars, we would prefer to build it ourselves.” The airport has established rates and fees for both improved and unimproved land.

Winder-Barrow collects a fuel flowage fee as well as a percentage of gross sales, excluding fuel. Some 600,000 gallons of fuel were sold in 2005, which Whitman says is down from previous years. He attributes this to the based military aircraft being deployed for much of 2005.

Until 2004, the airport was selling fuel, in competition with the FBO. “We got out of the fuel business,” says Whitman. “There wasn’t enough volume really for two providers at the airport.” The airport leases the fuel farm to the fixed base operator, who is also responsible for the operation and maintenance of the facilities.

Whitman says Winder-Barrow is “definitely” prepared for the introduction of the very light jets. “We already have all the infrastructure in place. And then also with a tower coming online and the ILS, we’ll definitely have everything in place that we’ll need.”

Whitman sees the airport playing a role also as the micro jets start to come into action. The airport’s location, just outside of Class B airspace, makes it an attractive alternative to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.