Monday, June 26, 2017

St. Mary's, Camden County, Georgia: Future of aviation uncertain

ST. MARYS — The future of aviation in Camden County is uncertain after the St. Marys Airport permanently closes.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is currently identifying potential locations for a new airport in Camden County, said Jimmy Starline, chairman of the Camden County Commission.

“We had a meeting with GDOT two months ago. They were looking at new sites,” he said.

There is a potential stumbling block, however. A new airport will require a sponsor that will accept the responsibility of overseeing management of the facility, as well as the property in the immediate vicinity to ensure aircraft can safely take off and land.

Starline, who served on the St. Marys Airport Authority until 2010, said he helped negotiate an agreement to reopen the airport after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Despite claims by some city officials, Starline said the Navy never imposed a condition to relocate the municipal airport if it was allowed to reopen. The Navy considered the airport to be a potential security and safety threat after the attacks.

“The biggest thing is there was never a study that says the airport is a significant threat to the base,” he said.

Now, the county faces the prospect of not having a municipal airport for at least five years. Some predict the county may never get another airport.

Starline said the sponsor’s fee is $3 million and the airport would likely lose money the first three to four years it operates. The goal is for municipal airports to become self sustaining, but he said some never make a profit.

The big question is who will pay the sponsor’s fee to operate a new $40 million airport?

“The county doesn’t have $3 million for an airport,” Starline said. “We’re working on a spaceport. I don’t know what will happen on a sponsorship.”

Starline said the city officials made a mistake when they negotiated an agreement to close the airport without having another one built somewhere in the county.

“I don’t think we should have gone one day without an airport,” Starline said.

Bob Nutter has been the lone St. Marys City Council member to oppose closing the airport without having a replacement.

“I think it was a failure for the city not to be insistent another airport be built,” he said.

The FAA funded a study more than a decade ago to identify nine potential sites for a new airport. Nutter said the city only looked at three of the sites before choosing one on Billyville Road near Woodbine. That site was later rejected because of wetlands issues.

One site the city never considered was near the intersection of Haddock and St. Marys roads at the Interstate 95 interchange at exit 1, he said.

“I think there were eight other sites that could have been revisited,” he said. “There are a number of things that could have been done.”

The city has excellent road and rail systems, but it has sacrificed an important part of the transportation system needed to attract new businesses, he said.

“We no longer have the third leg of the milking stool by closing the airport,” Nutter said.

He predicted the city will “blow an opportunity” by letting the airport close without a replacement.

“Once the St. Marys Airport closes, you can kiss a municipal airport goodbye,” he predicted.

Airport authority member Dick Russell, who was on the selection committee, said it was a mistake when city officials failed to consider all the sites.

“Nobody was contacted to see if they would sell,” he said.

Pilots were told by the city to remove their planes from the airport by July 1, but a letter sent by the Navy gives them until Sept. 8. The letter also said assistance will be offered to help relocate.

Greg Bird, owner of Bird Aviation, said he plans to follow the Navy’s order’s to vacate by Sept. 8.

“I’m not sure where this leaves my clients with airplanes,” he said. “It’s a question in limbo.”

The city has also imposed a deadline of July 14 for the runway to close permanently, leaving Bird to wonder if pilots will be able to use the runway if they wait to leave later than the city deadline.

“The city hasn’t given a deadline to Bird Aviation,” he said. “Nobody said anything to me until June 9. That’s when the 90-day clock started ticking.”

City Manager John Holman said he has not received any notification about the new deadline set by the Navy. He said a July 1 deadline for planes to leave the airport and a July 14 deadline for the airport to shut down were established soon after the federal legislation was approved to fund the closure.

“The Federal Aviation Authority wanted to give plenty of notice,” he said. “The city is still moving forward.”

No comments: