DIGGING DEEPER: Fulton County to invest millions in expanding airport

The blighted Airway Motel on Fulton Industrial Boulevard wasn’t an enticing gateway to the Fulton County airport, which houses corporate aircraft from the likes of Home Depot and Coca-Cola.

So the county bought the building, and plans to tear it down. It’s the first of many expected changes at the south Fulton airport.

In the coming years, Fulton County intends to add more hangars for corporate jets, build a conference space for conversations about economic development, extend the airport’s main runway and add restaurants and shops.

There are also plans to build an animal shelter on the property, as well as an emergency operations center so government officials have a place to go if the downtown Atlanta government center is compromised.

All told, the county expects more than $120 million in investment around the airport, including $90 million over 15 years at the airport itself.

The work, county leaders say, could be huge for the area.

“We can make it into something vibrant,” Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said. “It can be an economic center for Fulton County.”

Now, the general aviation airport is functional, but there's not much to do if you aren't flying in or out of Charlie Brown Field. Anderson and others hope continued investment there will spill over to the rest of Fulton Industrial Boulevard — the last unincorporated part of the county and an area that has 28,000 workers and 15 million square feet of industrial space, but few places to eat lunch.

“We’re excited about the investment and the attention the district is getting,” said Gil Prado, the executive director of the Fulton Boulevard Community Improvement District. “People want to come to work in a clean, safe, vibrant place.”

The plans for the airport are in the early stages. The county still must create a master plan, which is subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation. But the vision for the area calls for an increased government presence, including space for social service agencies and a public safety training complex.

In the future, the airport could be an anchor for a wide-ranging set of services, including workforce development training, health services and alternative court programs.

But the beginning is the airport itself.

New hangar space could help economic development

David Clark, Fulton’s public works director, said hangar space in metro Atlanta is in high demand. There are currently 40 hangars at the Fulton airport, which is the third-busiest in the state.

There could be room for as many as 20 new hangar spaces by building in an area that wasn’t usable before and re-purposing part of an underused runway, Clark said.

The extra hangars could make a difference when it comes to economic development, and luring companies to Georgia, said Liz Hausmann, a Fulton County commissioner. Hausmann said two corporate relocations were lost in the past year because of insufficient hangar access.

Peachtree-DeKalb Airport “is full, we’re full,” she said. “It was an issue.”

The plan to extend the runway by 1,200 feet over Fulton Industrial Boulevard will make take off safer for fully loaded jets, and the creation of an airport-specific fire department will also improve safety. On top of that, the county plans to rebrand as Atlanta's executive airport. Clark said there are about 60,000 takeoffs and landings there annually.

“When you tie it all together, there’s enormous potential,” Anderson said.

And the addition of a business park and retail space in the area will increase the county’s tax base, said Al Nash, the executive director of the county’s development authority.

It will likely take 20 years before the vision is complete, but leaders think some parts of the plan — like tearing down the Airway Motel, which the county bought for $850,000, and which was known for drugs and prostitution — will have an immediate impact.

The stage was set for improvements when UPS announced plans to build a massive package processing center on land adjacent to the county. It opened last year. Anderson said UPS' interest in the area was evidence of the demand, and it was a catalyst for these projects.

Prado said the CID’s goal is bringing investment to the area. Improvements to the airport, he said, fit in with that strategy.

“I think it’s the county’s biggest asset here,” said Robb Pitts, the Fulton County commission chairman. “It’s going to be a signature project for us.”