Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled plans on Friday for a $35 million aviation academy to train aircraft mechanics at the Paulding County airport, a plan that could effectively block efforts to commercialize a second airport in metro Atlanta.
Deal descended in a state patrol helicopter on Friday morning and landed at the tiny airport to announce the 60,000 square foot Chattahoochee Technical College aircraft maintenance training facility.
Citing concerns about mixing airline service with a training facility for aircraft mechanics, Deal said the plan would require the airport to remain a general aviation airport — which would scrap the prospect of commercialization.
“I think the requirement of safety as it relates to a training facility where you’re training mechanics such as this requires it be a general aviation airport,” Deal said, adding that such a requirement would “probably” be put into a written agreement.
County officials greeted the state’s proposal as an economic boost, with the potential to resolve long-standing turmoil in the community over whether to commercialize the airport and attract airline service.
The governor’s stance aligns the state with Paulding airport anti-commercialization forces, including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. The plan to commercialize the airport, announced in 2013, would have created a second airport in metro Atlanta for commercial airliners. The driving force behind it was developer Brett Smith, who turned his attention to Paulding County after a failed attempt to commercialize Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field.
The proposal quickly drew opposition from Delta, which viewed it as a competitive threat to its dominance at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport where the company operates its largest hub. The proposal also led to a series of lawsuits and political upheaval in Paulding County, with pro-commercialization county commissioners voted out in 2014.
The commercialization effort was halted by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year when it closed its file on the airport’s application because the airport didn’t submit revisions as requested.
But it still left the door open to a new application next year, when a new group of Paulding county commissioners take their seats and replace outgoing commissioners who have opposed commercialization. That possibility was dampened with the governor’s announcement.
Deal said employers such as Gulfstream and Delta need the types of aircraft mechanics that the academy would produce.
With baby boomers retiring and the aviation industry growing, the state overall needs about 2,000 airframe and powerplant mechanics a year, according to the governor. He said the average salary for those jobs is nearly $30 an hour.
“Your ability to find a job will be almost instantaneous,” Deal said. “You’re going to have a lot of young people who look at this as a real opportunity.”
Students would be able to attend the academy tuition-free through the state’s HOPE Career Grant, which funds tuition for college students who major in high-demand fields. Deal said 88 percent of those trained get jobs in their field.
Before construction of the academy can begin, the Paulding County Airport Authority would need to transfer 3.9 acres of land next to the terminal to the county’s Industrial Building Authority, which would then transfer the land to the state, according to airport authority director Terry Tibbitts. The state plans to finalize the deed before Deal leaves office.
The requirement that the airport not commercialize is “a political decision,” Tibbitts said, expressing doubt that the county would challenge the state’s plan, adding that counties depend on state funding.
State Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, and state Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, who worked on the deal, said a prerequisite was that local officials in Paulding County were on board — including county commissioners as well as county and airport leaders who have pushed for commercialization and those opposed to it.
Dugan said he thinks with the aviation academy at the airport, “commercialization is next to impossible.”
Yet, it’s still unclear how Smith’s Silver Comet Terminal Partners, Paulding airport’s development partner that has an agreement to commercialize the airport, will respond.
After years of bitter disputes between residents and Paulding officials over commercialization, many elected officials in the county expressed hope that the development would end conflict over the future of the airport that today is known as Silver Comet Field.
“This solves every issue we’ve been having out here,” Gravley said. “This is an answer to our prayers…. It’s an extreme positive coming out of Paulding County, and we need that.”