Discord over plans to commercialize Paulding County’s airport is seeping into the county’s social fabric, provoking arguments among neighbors and political fights in next week’s primary elections.
Since the announcement last fall of plans to launch commercial airline flights in Paulding — potentially creating a long-talked of “second airport” for the region — opponents have sought to delay or block initial steps. Meantime the plan has become an issue in county commission elections and has even trickled into one pastor’s prayers.
“Pray for the leaders in our community, father, that are faced with a lot of things, a lot of stuff with the businesses and the airport,” Pastor Robbie Finley intoned last month in the invocation for the commission meeting. “Help them make the best decisions, father.”
The airport issue has longtime friends and church members disagreeing with each other on a fundamental question about the community’s future.
“It’s so sad what this has done to our community,” said Sue Wilkins, who lives several miles from the small, general aviation airport and is one of the plaintiffs in lawsuits against commercialization. “Friends and neighbors, even families are being pitted against each other.”
Billboards in the county shout opposing views. One for county commission candidate Tony Crowe reads: “NO COMMERCIAL AIRPORT!” Another not far away says: “$59 fares + Jobs = Silver Comet Field, SUPPORT THE OPPORTUNITY!”
The volume on both sides is rising with election season, as the airport question is one of the most contentious issues. Three of five county commission seats are up for election.
Last fall, county leaders and a private company, Propeller Investments, disclosed that they had launched a plan to privatize operations at Paulding County Northwest Airport — Silver Comet Field and recruit an airline to begin scheduled service. Plans call for only a few flights a week initially, but the schedule could grow.
Since then, preliminary work to prepare the airport — it already has a suitable runway but needs other modifications for airline use — has been delayed by legal challenges. No airline has yet committed.
Meanwhile, residents fighting the plan are targeting the commission and the airport authority that made the deal and kept it under wraps for 11 months. The commission has limited control over the authority; much of the airport fight depends on a federal environmental assessment and lawsuits underway.
Still, anti-airport commercialization candidates including Republicans Crowe and Vernon Collett aim to step into county commissioner seats, where they could challenge funding for the commercialization work.
The primaries also have created a chance for voters to have a say.
Wilkins said the disagreements have led to “a lot of ugly, petty stuff going on, name calling.” Accusations thrown around online, at public meetings and in testy in-person exchanges include swipes about other people’s bankruptcies, home foreclosures and personal relationships.
She and other opponents worry a commercial airport would bring more traffic, decrease property values and transform the county into the type of bustling metro environment they want to avoid.
Backers say the airport plan will boost the county’s growth and create needed jobs. The plan calls for broader aviation business development around the airport, in addition to the scheduled service.
Proponents include nearly all of Paulding’s leaders and the powerful Paulding Chamber of Commerce. A key backer is county commission chair David Austin, whose brother Boyd Austin is mayor of Dallas, the county seat. The Austin boys, as they are sometimes called, both sit on the airport authority board.
On the anti-commercialization side are a group of vocal residents who county officials say are being helped by a major corporate force: Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. Delta opposes a second airport for metro Atlanta, arguing it would siphon resources away from Hartsfield-Jackson International, where Delta has its biggest hub.
Law firm Troutman Sanders, which has represented Delta Air Lines in other matters and lobbies for the company at the state Capitol, contributed $2,000 to Crowe’s campaign. Crowe is running against incumbent David Barnett, an Austin ally.
Troutman Sanders lawyers have also been regularly attending the airport authority and county commission meetings since the airport commercialization plan was announced. Delta and the law firm had no comment.
Another anti-airport commercialization candidate, Collett, is running against Richard Manous and Herb Haynes for a commission seat being vacated by Tommie Graham.
People “should have a say so in whether or not it goes commercial,” Collett said, though it’s unclear how much commissioners could change if elected. “If there’s anything I can do to get back in the hands of the people, I would in a heartbeat.”
Incumbent Todd Pownall, a Republican, opposes commercialization and is unopposed in the primaries. Two Democrats running to oppose Pownall in the fall are divided on the issue: Patti Smith opposes airport commercialization, while Patton Hughes favors it. Also running for the seat is independent candidate Mike Pope.
Finley said he was moved to mention the airport during his prayer at the commission meeting because he knows that the airport issue is “causing a lot of controversy in the community.”
“I’m just praying that everything can be resolved in our community, and it’d be nice just for it to be peaceful,” Finley said.
John Hyden, who has lived in Paulding for 25 years, says the issue “has created some uncomfortable times.”
He said he likes David Austin and attends church with two other commissioners who support the plan — which he does not.
“It’s not what’s said when we’re together,” Hyden said. “It’s what’s not said, because there is a strain.”