Paulding aviation academy plans encounter turbulence

Gov. Nathan Deal announced plans for Chattahoochee Technical College’s aviation academy at Silver Comet Field on Friday, October 12, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal announced plans for Chattahoochee Technical College’s aviation academy at Silver Comet Field on Friday, October 12, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A developer seeking to commercialize Paulding County's airport has filed a lawsuit against the Paulding airport authority, alleging the authority breached its contract and had concealed plans for an aviation academy announced by Gov. Nathan Deal in October.

It’s the latest in a series of lawsuits filed over the Paulding airport and efforts to attract airline flights.

Deal last month flew to the Paulding airport to announce plans for a Chattahoochee Technical College facility to train aircraft mechanics there. The small general aviation airport sits about 38 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta.

The Paulding County Airport Authority and the developer that has a lease at the airport, Silver Comet Partners, have attempted for the last five years to move forward a plan to get certification for commercial flights and launch airline service.

Yet they encountered powerful opposition, including from local residents who raised concerns about traffic and noise and criticized how the airport authority and county quietly developed plans to commercialize the airport, holding discussions in executive session closed to the public and only announcing the deals a year later.

Also vociferously opposing the commercialization are Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and the City of Atlanta, which have interests in blocking competition to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

A series of lawsuits and legal challenges by residents and others have thwarted the commercialization effort so far. And the aviation academy appeared to further hamper the potential for commercialization.

That’s because Deal cited concerns about mixing airline service with an aircraft maintenance training facility.

“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 at the press conference announcing plans for the academy.

The suit filed this month by Silver Comet alleges the Paulding airport authority acted in bad faith when it secretly helped develop plans for the aviation academy, working with state officials and the Paulding County Board of Commissioners.

“The Airport Authority deliberately waited until the last possible moment to disclose to Silver Comet the proposed ‘Aviation Academy,’” says the lawsuit filed by Silver Comet Partners.

The airport authority moved to terminate Silver Comet’s lease option rights to airport property, alleging the developer did not begin marketing the property as it was obligated to in the agreement. Silver Comet said it had begun marketing the airport but was “impeded in its good faith efforts by opposing forces secretly funded by Delta Air Lines, Inc.”

The lawsuit also alleges the airport authority wanted to terminate Silver Comet’s lease option rights because it was acting “in collaboration with the Paulding County Commission to prevent commercial passenger service at the Paulding County Airport.”

That, according to Silver Comet, breaches the airport authority’s obligation in a lease agreement to “use its best efforts” to get commercial airport certification.

Paulding airport authority director Terry Tibbitts last month said the airport authority has “done everything the contract said we should do.” Tibbitts this week declined to comment on the litigation.

Silver Comet is seeking to recover its fees and expenses, and says in the lawsuit that the projected value of the Paulding airport with commercial passenger service “was estimated to be greater than $200 million.”

Silver Comet Partners, run by Brett Smith and his New York-based firm Propeller Investments, also cited other commercial airports that have aircraft maintenance training facilities, and separately alleged the airport authority violated the open records act by not producing documents Silver Comet had requested.

Yet to be seen is what the next governor will do with funding for the academy and the terms for commercialization.

Deal’s administration had originally planned to include funding for the aviation academy in the state’s amended budget next year.

The governor then proposed to include funding for the aviation academy in a spending measure to be approved during a special session this week, but subsequently asked lawmakers to redirect the money to hurricane relief. The aviation academy could still be funded next year.