The River Region's Wave of the Future!
Janna Gurtler Harris
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The Wetumpka City Council passed a resolution Dec. 6 requesting a study to be conducted on the Wetumpka Municipal Airport to determine possible expansion or relocation of the airport.
The proposed feasibility report will be conducted by the Alabama Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. Barry Mask, executive director of the Elmore County Economic Development Authority (ECEDA), originally approached Dr. John Eagerton, chiefof ALDOT's Aeronautics Bureau, about possibilities for the airport's future.
According to Eagerton, the feasibility study will cost between $100,000 and $120,000 and will be completely paid for by ALDOT at no cost to the city of Wetumpka or Elmore County. The report would take nine or 10 months to conduct, and the results would then be brought back to ECEDA and the city council for review.
Mask believes this report to be a critical step in bringing jobs to Elmore County.
"This site where the current airport sits has some unique characteristics highly valued in the industrial economic development sector," the economic development director said. "Those are rail, high pressure gas, high volume electricity, and 15 minutes within I-65."
The Wetumpka Municipal Airport is located on Alabama Highway 14 in Elmore, skirting the nearby communities of Coosada and Millbrook.
"When I met with Dr. Eagerton, I made it perfectly clear that we want this to be a win-win proposition," Mask continued. "We don't want to deprive anyone of things they are currently enjoying. But if we could bring jobs in for the airport to move elsewhere or be expanded, why not look at all the factors?"
Mask pursued Eagerton with this proposition after realizing how many possible jobs for Elmore County were being lost over the past 14 months.
"We have had three different industry inquiries from the Alabama Development Office. There are only four other sites in the state of Alabama where there are 250 acres, rail, and gas. How many times can we turn away 300 to 400 jobs, with a $20 million to $35 million payroll?"
Councilman Ken Hammock said he received a letter from the chairman of the Wetumpka Airport Authority voicing strong opposition to this project and wondered if the council could have more time to study this from all sides and make a decision at a later date.
Mask appreciated Hammock's concern but expressed his belief that it was time to move on with the study.
"I think some of the people who are opposed to this are opposed to it tonight, they're going to be opposed to it a year from now, and they're going to be opposed to it five years from now," Mask said. "This has been out on the streets for a couple of months now, and I think anybody trying to prevent it at this late stage is simply trying to delay it."
Mask went on to say that he and Dr. Eagerton had already met with the president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) to discuss concerns.
"They left feeling very good about the project," he noted.
Councilman Chris Washington was highly in favor of the feasibility study, stressing the need for growth and jobs in Elmore County.
"As Rep. Mask said, we have the gas, we have the electricity, and we have plenty of water. This should lower our water bills. It's still going to be centrally located. We cry about people going elsewhere. Why? Because we do not want to move forward. Let us move forward now. It's only a study. After the resolution, we could all come together and discuss. Let's stop waiting."
According to Eagerton, the current 3,000-foot runway does not accommodate corporate aircraft.
"The question is, do you want an airport that is a really good airport for sports and recreation and activities, or do you want an airport that supports not only sport aviation activities, but also supports corporate aviation that can accommodate jobs, businesses, and industries that all communities in Alabama are striving to achieve?"
Dave Ramsey, owner of a hanger at the airport who also has a land lease there, is in strong opposition to the study.
"If it turns out that the airport is to be relocated, history and experience shows that most of the existing aircraft owners will not move with the airport. Fifty-six percent of renters live in Montgomery," he said. "The reason they're in Wetumpka is because Dannelly (Field) is too expensive. If this airport moves, the cost of rental for a hanger, land, or gasoline will be the same as Dannelly, but Dannelly will then be closer to 56 percent of their aircraft owners."
Ramsey went on to say, "It may turn out to be that the airport should stay where it is, in which case the $150,000 is down the drain."
Councilwoman Kathy Holt retorted, "If it's allocated money, it's not going to go back to the taxpayers anyway. It's already designated money, so it's not like if we don't use it, it's going to go somewhere else."
"No, but maybe it could go to a new hanger," replied Ramsey, "That would be much more constructive than blowing it on a study like this."
Ramsey continued to voice his concerns about financing a new airport. "If the airport moves, you're looking at $10 million to $15 million to build it. Where is that money going to come from, and who is going to pay for it? Is the airport going to be owned by Wetumpka? It's bad enough working with Wetumpka."
Holt and Mayor Jerry Willis questioned what problems Ramsey had working with the city.
Ramsey responded, "Are you seriously saying to me that you don't think it's hard to work with you people over the years? We've got empty corporate space on our airport plan. We've had people contact us wanting to build a hanger."
Ramsey claims that over the last five years, six companies wanted to build hangers at the airport, but that the city would not provide a lease for them.
"It's not a very good situation," the aviation enthusiast said. "I urge the council to vote 'no' for the present time, and let's talk about it a little more."
Eagerton went on to discuss examples of airports being built in the face of local opposition that now have a wide range of economic success. He also voiced some of the options for the current airport.
"Something we see all across the United States is that some people will come in and want to shut down the airport with no plan to replace it," Eagerton said. "This is an opportunity to not just build a new airport but find a good use for the existing airport. We see this as an opportunity we can support from the state level."
After the study is complete, Eagerton said the research will then be presented to the council.
"When we complete this study, we will bring you the answers," he said. "It will then be your decision to proceed further with the results of the study or not."
© 2013 Elmore County Economic Development Authority. All Rights Reserved.