Of all the obscure governmental agencies in Columbia County, perhaps the least known is the countys Airport Authority.
It would seem to be as useful as a coast guard in Kansas. There is no airport to exercise authority over.
Columbia County has a golden opportunity, however, to not just give the authority something to do, but to make the authority a partner in economic development.
The opportunity is a partnership with the Thomson-McDuffie County Airport. Historically, Augustas two airports have been the focus of Columbia Countys attention; in the 1970s, there even was a short-lived effort to relocate Daniel Field to Columbia County.
Augustas air services, however, are operated without input from surrounding communities. Thats where the McDuffie County opportunity is ripe for Columbia County.
State Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, applauds a proposal to expand McDuffies designation as a regional airport. We dont get any particular benefit from the Augusta Regional Airport, Harbin says. This gives us a better alternative.
The McDuffie option is attractive because of its proximity to industrial growth along the Interstate 20 corridor. McDuffies airport is near the second I-20 exit, making it convenient for existing Columbia County industries in Horizon South Industrial Park; for new industries in Horizon North; and for future development around the Appling-Harlem interchange.
Already, the airport has a $500,000 state grant for upgrades. But about $5 million more is needed for Thomson-McDuffie to meet its potential.
Thats where Columbia County comes in - not in providing that money, but in providing enough population numbers to attract federal funding.
Wed like to create a truly regional airport that can be used by all the surrounding counties, says Charlie Newton, McDuffie Countys Commis-sion chairman. Were successful already, but were scraping by with just 22,000 residents.
I think the concept is worth looking into, agrees Columbia County Commission Chairman Barry Fleming. More and more, the idea of counties combing their resources on regional projects seems to be the coming thing. After all, not only does Columbia County have no airport of its own, but land costs are so high that getting such a facility would be prohibitively expensive.
Before the details for such a partnership can take place, Newton says the airports consultant will conduct a study to determine exactly whom the airport would serve in an expanded role.
The study will cost about $80,000; the county plans to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for a grant, and local lawmakers hope to push the project along.
Weve certainly tried regional projects before, with mixed success. A regional partnership with McDuffie County offers Columbia County the opportunity to climb into the co-pilots seat just in time for this project to take off.
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