Paulding County Commission candidates gave their views on commercialization of the county's Silver Comet Field airport recently.
The controversial effort originated with the Paulding County Airport Authority’s 2012 contract with New York-based Propeller Airports for recruitment of an airline.
The airport authority's 2013 request to change the airport’s federal designation from general aviation to one allowing it to host commercial passenger flights drew legal challenges and public opposition from residents and governmental groups in subsequent years.
Airport authority leaders defended the contract with Propeller as a way to develop the airport as it struggled to remain financially viable during the economic downturn in 2012. Opponents maintain the authority was not transparent in seeking the agreement and did not do a proper environmental analysis of the facility, among a number of other charges.
The candidates include the incumbents and at least one challenger for each of three seats in the May 22 Republican primary.
They gave their views on the subject in recent public town hall meetings and in interviews with the Paulding Neighbor.
Jim Ashworth: Said he opposes commercialization efforts and supported withdrawal of an application to the Federal Aviation Administration to designate the airport as a commercial facility.
He said the facility was originally planned as a general aviation facility around which companies could develop their facilities.
Dan Boles: He was “not opposed to commercialization” but also could support the airport’s current general aviation use if it was shown it could be used to make the airport successful financially.
“One way or another, we need to make it profitable. Right now, it’s a money pit,” he said.
Boles said he believed the commission should rescind a 2015 resolution ending commission support for an application for the FAA to designate Silver Comet Field as a commercial airport.
He also said he did not agree all negotiations were done in secret but he also said he did not believe “they were done the way I would have done them.”
Tony Crowe (incumbent): Opposed commercialization efforts since before he was first elected in 2014.
“It’s consumed our county; divided the people of our county,” said Crowe, who is seeking re-election to the commission’s Post 4 seat.
He said he knew the history of the airport, did not believe the commercialization plan was “conceived” correctly and lacked public support.
“Until it’s brought out front, done properly, presented to the people and they buy it, I will not support it,” Crowe said.
Brian Stover: Said he "totally" opposes commercial designation and also opposes allowing delivery companies and other large cargo carriers under the current designation.
General aviation "leads to more opportunity for growth around the airport" in an area planned for aerospace-related and other industries.
"I think it's just better suited for our county," he said.
Vernon Collett (incumbent): Opposed commercialization since before his election in 2014 because of what he said was the lack of transparency and public support.
He said he opposed dropping a lawsuit against Propeller because the company promised to make payments on a $3.6 million bond for work to prepare the airport for commercial airliner flights. The company later reneged, leaving the annual $800,000 payment obligation to the county commission because it was backed by the county government.
“I hate that we have to sue for it, but if you tell me you ... want to drop the lawsuit, you’re telling me that the taxpayers are OK making this tax payment,” he said.
Chuck Hart: He supports whichever method – commercial or general aviation – that will make the airport both a viable business entity and help the county’s economic development efforts.
“We should allow it to take its own course.” Hart said.
He said he supported repeal of the 2015 resolution opposing the FAA application because it led to the county reneging on an obligation to seek commercial status. It also prompted Propeller to stop payment on the bond.
“(Propeller) needs to make the payments,” he said.
He also said he understood the concerns of some residents living near the airport. However, a county commissioner had to consider what was good for Paulding as a whole, which includes making the airport an economically viable entity.
“It’s not going away,” he said.
Sandy Kaecher: Said she wants to see a general aviation airport succeed because there is room for hangars and other tax-producing entities to build.
She said she was "doing research" to determine her stand on a commercial designation.
"I'm not for it and I'm not against it," she said. "
"If I had all the information that the board of commissioners had, I would be better able to make a decision on that airport,"" she said.
Todd Pownall (incumbent): An outspoken commercialization opponent since he learned of the plan by hearing about it on TV news in 2013 — a year after the airport authority signed a contract with Propeller. The airport is located in Post 2.
Pownall said airport officials “promised” it would remain a general aviation airport four years before it opened in late 2008.
“The same people that have not made it successful as general aviation want to change it to commercial,” he said. “It will not work in Paulding County. The numbers won’t work.”
He said those advocating for commercialization originally estimated its development as a commercial facility could lead to creation of 20,000 jobs. Pownall also cited a later study that determined commercial service would create only 55 full-time jobs initially at the airport.
He also has said commercialization would harm the county's quality of life.
Randy Pullen: If commercial service was “necessary to entice the business that we have coming into our county” then the airport authority should pursue it, he said.
“I certainly don’t want another (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport),” he said.
"I don’t want our county to sit back and not have the chance to grow in spite of ourself,” he said.