Airport plan blindsides Paulding residents

People in Paulding County are used to relative peace and quiet.

That’s one reason residents were surprised by the news last week that their little airport, now used by small planes and student pilots, could soon have commercial airline service.

Another is that no one told them such a plan was even in the works until they read or heard about it. Until last week, the county commissioner whose district includes the airport wasn’t even aware of the plan, which thrusts Paulding into the center of the longrunning issue of whether metro Atlanta needs an alternative to Hartsfield-Jackson International.

“It’s very sneaky the way they did it,” said Jarome Bone, who lives less than two miles from Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

Now that word of the project is out, some are concerned about the potential for big jets flying over their homes. Others figure it would bring needed local jobs to a bedroom county badly hurt by the housing bust.

They may have little choice in the matter, since the 40-year lease that gives New York venture capital firm Propeller Investments rights to space at Paulding Northwest was quietly struck nearly a year ago.

Propeller hopes to announce airline service by the end of the year, while also working to lure aerospace businesses to create jobs.

The airport says it only envisions a few flights a week to vacation destinations, not a full-fledged “second airport” operation. Allegiant Air, a small Nevada-based carrier that caters to package tour groups and charters, acknowledged talks with the Paulding airport.

There’s no guarantee an airline will commit. Delta Air Lines, the Atlanta-based colossus that has long opposed a second commercial airport, quickly voiced opposition last week. Delta’s CEO said the company will oppose upgrade funding for the Paulding airport, in the process issuing a not-so-subtle warning to other airlines to steer clear.

Meantime, some local residents are upset that they only learned now of a plan in the works for months.

One, Susan Wilkins, called the process “deceptive.” She has started a Facebook page to drum up opposition, as well as a petition.

Wilkins, who lives a few miles away, worries about noise, pollution, road congestion and other issues — concerns echoed by others.

“I don’t mind little planes but I don’t want big jets,” said Bone. “But there’s not much you can do. You don’t get a choice in things like this.”

The process in Paulding has been far different from the very public and tumultuous path taken in Gwinnett County, the last proposed site for a second commercial airport. Propeller Investments tried to convince Gwinnett to let it run Briscoe Field, expand the terminal and bring airline service.

The idea needed county commission approval, however, and the plan fell apart last year in the face of residents’ protests.

“We all know why they handled it this way” in Paulding, Wilkins said. “Because there was so much opposition in Gwinnett County.”

In Paulding the airport authority last fall quietly approved Propeller’s lease deal, which does not fully privatize the facility as was proposed in Gwinnett. There was no announcement that airline service might result.

The airport now is seeking federal approval to operate as a commercial airport and pursuing other needed upgrades. It already has a 6,000-foot runway capable of handling airliners such as the Boeing 737.

Paulding County Commission Chairman David Austin is on the airport authority. He said the airline plan wasn’t aired because officials were limited by confidentiality from discussing it.

Companies “test you… to see what kind of partner you are,” he said.

“The worst thing is to try to negotiate a deal with everything out there,” added Jamie Gilbert, executive director of the county’s economic development agency. “You don’t want your competition within the state to know what is taking place here.”

That rationale doesn’t fly with Wilkins.

“I’m appalled at how our county officials have chosen to hide this from us,” she said.

Austin last year sent another commissioner and a member of the airport authority on a trip to New York and other locations to explore Propeller’s proposal. But commissioner Todd Pownall, whose district includes the airport and surrounding neighborhoods, said he was never brought into the loop.

“I guess they think I’m too open and honest to the citizens,” Pownall said. “There’s no doubt that not letting the public know absolutely prevented any opposition against it.”

Pownall said more business at the airport “could be something positive” but added, “If they’re going to bring big commercial in here, I oppose it. I think if you give an inch, they’re wanting more.”

Not all residents asked about the idea object.

“I think it’s a good idea, because that’s what I do,” said Tripp Johnson, who lives near the airport and works at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Marietta doing repairs on the C5 cargo plane.

Rachel Walters, who also lives nearby, said she’s “fifty-fifty” on the plan.

“It’ll be great for employment,” she said, though for residents, she added, “it might stink.”

Pownall said he is getting calls from upset residents angered by the process as well as the plan.

“Probably the No. 1 concern they have is they didn’t know and they weren’t told,” Pownall said. “The folks in Paulding were always told that the airport would never house commercial.”

In fact, Paulding voters in 1999 voted against a $3 million bond issue to even build Paulding Northwest, which is being renamed Silver Comet Field as part of Propeller’s plan. The airport was built anyway with the help of federal funds, and opened in 2008 as a general aviation airport with a small but handsome terminal.

“It was kind of shoved down people’s throats,” county commissioner David Barnett said.

“But (the airport is) here. We’ve got to make the best of it,” added Barnett, who is on board with the Propeller plan.

Kaye Schaefer and her husband moved to Paulding County nearly a decade ago, without knowing an airport would ever open near their subdivision — let alone become a potential airline destination.

“I just don’t want the big planes coming over,” said Schaefer. “It’s just not right for the neighborhood.”