Paulding airport fate up in the air after runoff election

FILE: Paulding County airport’s taxiway. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

FILE: Paulding County airport’s taxiway. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The fate of Paulding County's tiny airport could shift, now that residents have voted out several commissioners who were opposed to a plan to add commercial flights.

For the residents of the bedroom community west of Atlanta, the recent runoff elections could signal movement in the years-long fight over their local airport and a proposal to pursue commercial flights.

Republican challengers beat out two Paulding County Commission incumbents who opposed airport commercialization. Both seats have no Democratic challengers.

“The county as a whole wanted a change,” said defeated commissioner Tony Crowe. “Maybe they’re tired of hearing about the airport.”

Since 2015, anti-commercialization commissioners have made up the majority of the board that governs the county, and they passed measures to withdraw the support Paulding had previously offered for airport commercialization.

The staunch resistance of the county commission, coupled with opposition from Delta Air Lines and legal challenges mounted by residents, halted progress on the plan to attract airline flights. Their opposition was so effective that the Federal Aviation Administration in June announced that it was closing the file on the Paulding airport's application to commercialize.

“For a moment, we thought, ‘OK, this is over with,’” Crowe said. “But now that the board has changed, there could be a resurrection of that.”

Paulding County and its airport authority surprised the region when it announced in 2013 a plan to commercialize the Paulding County airport, in partnership with private airport developer Silver Comet Terminal Partners.

But the plan quickly prompted opposition from Delta Air Lines and residents, who filed suit, and anti-commercialization candidates won seats on the county commission.

The FAA has said Paulding could submit a new application if it now wishes to pursue commercial certification.

What's more, the Paulding airport's long-term lease with Silver Comet Terminal Partners calls for the airport authority to "use its best efforts" to get commercial certification.

The Paulding commission already has a key supporter at the helm: its chairman Dave Carmichael, who is a strong supporter of airport commercialization.

“My career has been in aviation in the military, Eastern Airlines and corporate aviation,” Carmichael said in comments sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I have personally seen, and experienced the benefits, of aviation to provide good paying jobs” and other economic benefits.

Some commission candidates kept their opinions on airport commercialization close to the vest. Winning candidate Sandy Kaecher, for example, says on her website she "will promote positive growth with good paying jobs." And a campaign message from fellow winning candidate Brian Stover said "nothing is more important to Brian Stover than job creation."

“I suspect that these new elected officials are going to be much more open to the idea” of airport commercialization, said Tom Glanton, a former state House representative. “You’ve gotta be able to separate the forest from the trees, and some trees fell in this election. They were basically that group who represented the purity of old Paulding who’d rather not change. And you can’t build a wall around the county. Change is going to happen.”

To be sure, there are also still hurdles before a new commercialization effort could begin — including finding an interested airline and resolving legal challenges.

“Time will tell if the incoming board of commissioners will support” a new application to the FAA, said Sue Wilkins, a resident who has sued to stop the airport commercialization.

But for those who have pushed for airline service in Paulding — including Carmichael, the Paulding County airport authority and its partner Silver Comet — the shift of the commission board presents an opening.

Another Paulding commission candidate, Chuck Hart, beat out a third anti-airport commercialization incumbent in the primaries, and will face Democratic opponent Taurus Madric-Morris in the general election in November.

So, whatever the outcome, three new commissioners will take seats on the five-seat board in January and three anti-commercialization incumbents have been ousted.

Still, legal wrangling — and debate over whether bringing airline flights to a small county’s airport could be the key to economic prosperity or the destruction of residents’ way of life — is likely to continue.

“The towel has not been thrown in on commercialization opposition,” Wilkins said. “That will continue to be fought and addressed. People aren’t giving up.”

Paulding County elections and the airport

Three county commissioners opposed to airport commercialization lost elections to keep their seats:

  • Vernon Collett, lost primary to challenger Chuck Hart, who will face Democratic candidate Taurus Madric-Morris in November
  • Todd Pownall, lost runoff to challenger Sandy Kaecher. No Democratic challenger.
  • Tony Crowe, lost runoff to challenger Brian Stover. No Democratic challenger.