Calvin Thompson sits at his desk at his Dallas grading company with a model of an airplane he owned.
Calvin Thompson said he heeded the advice of a former Hiram mayor about how to lead the Paulding County Airport Authority.
Hiram Mayor Dewey Pendley told Thompson to operate Paulding’s nine-year-old airport “like a business” and not be concerned how the political winds were blowing, he said.
“He said, ‘You go after whatever you’ve got to do to grow this airport,’” Thompson said.
Thompson recently resigned after 16 years leading the airport authority, which oversees operations of Silver Comet Field airport near Dallas. He said he ended his tenure as chairman, which ran from 2000 until last month, because of health concerns.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “They needed someone young and fresh.”
Thompson was among the main proponents of a Paulding airport before its construction with federal funds in 2007. He and others helped lobby for funding which led to the Federal Aviation Administration putting about $75 million into building the facility on U.S. Hwy. 278 in west Paulding.
He also led it through its subsequent financial struggles, which led to the authority’s controversial 2013 decision to seek commercial passenger service at the facility.
The Georgia General Assembly had approved the authority’s legal formation in 1972. It did not regularly meet until 2000 when then-County Commissioner Wayne Kirby asked Thompson, a longtime Paulding grading contractor and aviation enthusiast, to organize it into an agency with members and regular meetings, Thompson said.
He recalled making a speech in 2004 in which he said he opposed commercial passenger flights. However, that was before the airport struggled through an economic downturn in which companies cut back on corporate air fleets and a tornado caused major damage, he said.
“What’s life about? It’s about change. You change your mind and you pursue other avenues,” Thompson said.
The March 2012 tornado destroyed 17 planes and damaged the terminal. However, the authority was successful in producing the inaugural Salute America 2012 air show at the airport seven months later in October.
In the same year, Propeller Investments president Rhett Smith ended his bid to bring commercial passenger airline service to Briscoe Field airport in Gwinnett County amid public opposition to the plan.
Paulding airport director Blake Swafford and Thompson contacted Smith about a plan to recruit passenger service to the Paulding airport as part of a larger plan to develop adjacent land for aerospace-related companies. That included seeking the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial designation under Part 139 of FAA rules.
“I got with Blake and we talked about it, and I said, ‘Blake, I don’t think we have a choice. I’m going to be the fall guy for this because of what I said in 2004, but we’ve got to do something,’” Thompson said.
“We were still trying to run it like a business,” he said. “We weren’t getting all these commissioners involved in the business of the airport. It was all about making it successful.”
He said he also wanted to give Smith “a second chance” after he was unable to develop his plan in Gwinnett.
“When I met him he was just a young businessman trying to grow a business. I believe in capitalism in this country, and helping people grow a business,” Thompson said.
He said he foresaw the primary use of the airport’s commercial passenger service being companies transporting their executives.
“It wasn’t about taking people out, it was about bringing executives in. (Companies) are selling their jets ... and putting their executives on commercial jets and flying them all over the country,” he said.
However, he said operation of the airport “like a business” should have included waiting until FAA approval to announce Propeller Investments’ plan. The “big mistake” Propeller made was issuing a press release about it the day before the second annual air show began Oct. 5, 2013, he said.
“It didn’t make any sense to bring it out at that time. Every airplane we brought into the county, we didn’t announce it to the county,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he did not anticipate the level of Paulding opposition after the company announced it publicly in October 2013.
“I had just been dealing with people who loved the airport,” Thompson said. “I thought they wanted to see it grow where our kids won’t have to go all over the world hunting jobs.”
After Propeller’s announcement, standing-room-only crowds made up mostly of vocal opponents replaced the typically sparse attendance at the authority’s monthly meetings at the airport terminal building. Much of the opposition centered on alleged lack of transparency in the negotiations for the commercial service.
Thompson said he supported keeping the effort going both for legal reasons — the contract with Propeller — and what he perceived as support from a majority of Paulding residents.
“There were so many more people supporting it than were against it,” he said. “They just weren’t as vocal as the opposers.”
Three county commissioners backing the plan either retired or lost re-election bids. Voters replaced them with commissioners who created a majority opposing commercialization.
In addition, a group of six Paulding residents filed a series of lawsuits to delay or halt the plan — with funding from an unknown source, the residents have said.
Though other county officials maintained Delta Airlines sought to halt potential competition by paying for the opponents’ attorneys, Thompson said he will not criticize Delta “until you find me proof”’ of its involvement.
“I still fly them everywhere I go. I’m not going to persecute the employees. They’ve done nothing wrong,” he said.
Now, Thompson said he planned to continue to help interim airport director Terry Tibbitts recruit new tenants to the facility “as much as possible.”
He said he also wanted the airport authority to continue its commercialization effort because of the money and sacrifices county and federal authorities put into it.
However, he said he understands now the commercial designation may not happen because of opponents’ legal roadblocks.
“I’m not going to give up on the 139 as long as I have a breath in me because we’ve been persecuted for it too much to say, ‘We aren’t going to go there anymore.’”
Thompson said the only thing he would have done differently is “praying more over it.”
He said he was warned not to begin authority meetings with prayers because it might threaten FAA funding because of constitutional concerns. However, someone other than government officials must have led the federal government to approve the first Georgia jet-capable airport in 37 years, he said.
“Look what (God has) brought us through out there. He’s brought us through a tornado. He’s brought us through all kinds of lightning strikes, and he’s watched us to make sure we’re going to be good stewards of that airport.”