ATLANTA - Columbia County doesn't have a general-aviation airport to lure business travelers weary of the larger commercial facilities in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
But the Thomson-McDuffie County Regional Airport offers the next best thing, according to two members of Columbia's legislative delegation. It's closer to rapidly growing western Columbia than either of Augusta's two airports, Bush Field or Daniel Field.
"They're just not centrally located to where our business prospects are," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez.
Harbin worked with Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, during the hectic final day of the General Assembly this month to pass a resolution creating a study commission to determine what improvements would be necessary at the McDuffie airport to attract traveling executives from across East Georgia.
"We'd like to have a truly regional airport," said Charlie Newton, chairman of the McDuffie County Commission and a driving force behind the commission.
The 17-member panel will include representatives from the City of Thomson and the counties of McDuffie, Columbia, Greene, Taliaferro, Wilkes, Lincoln and Warren.
The McDuffie airport is uniquely positioned in the region to capture more business from corporate travelers. At 5,500 feet, it boasts the second-longest runway in East Georgia, shorter only than Bush Field.
Unlike Daniel Field, it also is equipped with an instrument-landing system, allowing executives on a tight schedule to take off and land in all kinds of weather.
The McDuffie airport's supporters are eyeing some existing businesses as potential customers, including resorts on Lake Oconee in Greene County and Thurmond Lake in Lincoln County.
Proximity to a well-appointed general-aviation airport also could become attractive bait to draw new companies to a region hampered by chronic unemployment and poverty.
"This will be a big boost for these communities," said R.K. Sehgal, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism.
Eventually, Newton would like to see a helicopter shuttling travelers from the airport to their corporate offices, industrial buildings or resort destinations.
"That's the pie-in-the-sky vision," he said. "But I think it's a little bit down the road."
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