Originally created 10/11/00

Airport committee holds meeting



The sooner Augusta Regional Airport can finish developing a master plan for future economic growth, the sooner it can offer property instead of promises to air-related industries.

That became more clear to members of the airport's master plan steering committee when it met Tuesday morning and learned of a decision by Air Tran Airways, Inc. to start an airplane mechanics school in Eastman and not Augusta.

Air Tran, based in Orlando, announced Tuesday it had agreed to a five-year contract with an Atlanta-based airplane mechanics and inspectors union.

As part of that contract, the airline agreed to help develop a mechanics school at The Heart of Georgia Technical Institute at Eastman.

Several airport officials, including marketing director David Dorminey and aviation commission member Marcie Wilhelmi had been quietly hoping to persuade Air Tran to be part of a proposed airplane repair facility and mechanics school at Augusta Regional Airport.

Such a school, airport officials say, will help create jobs, add to the tax base and help increase the number of airlines coming to Augusta's only commercial airport.

Augusta Technical College is in on the deal, already planning to accept students and start classes next autumn. Garrett Aviation, a jet engine repair facility at the airport, has said it can hire 15, 20 or maybe even 30 such graduates from the school.

While there are other regional jet companies that may be willing to come to Augusta - Atlantic Southeast Airlines is a possibility - Air Tran's decision was unexpected.

"The guy I talked to in Atlanta five weeks ago said they had not made a decision. They weren't even close," Ms. Wilhelmi said.

That may have been because Augusta, without a master plan in place and without a detailed plan for the school, could offer only promises and not property to Air Tran executives.

A school building, a training facility, a commitment would have helped Augusta's chances, airport experts said.

"We'll move on from here," said Mike Moroney of Black & Veatch, the airport consulting firm hired by the airport to develop and produce a master plan. "There are other opportunities out there and the other thing to remember too, is these kind of decisions, particularly with an Air Tran, are not forever."

Ernie Smith, who has been on the aviation commission since February, agreed.

"It would be good for us all to remember what we're doing here," Mr. Smith told the master plan steering committee Tuesday morning. "This is the first time it's ever been done before. What we're doing is putting a prototype together that will go for the next 20 to 25 years. In keeping with that, please don't get discouraged because there are going to be bumps in the road. The final product is going to be something that we know we can sell and be as aggressive and tenacious as we possibly can."

One of those possibilities may lie with a Raytheon, a Boeing or a Lockheed Martin.

Pat Buchholz, who works in the strategic management office of the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, is one of the 11 members of the master plan steering committee. She said one of the military base's biggest problems has been finding civilian jobs for Army retirees.

"We don't want them to leave Augusta. We want them to stay and have an impact on the economy," Ms. Buchholz said.

These "retirees" are usually about 40 years old, with 15 to 20 years of electronic and information technology experience.

"The army computer science school is located at Fort Gordon," Ms. Buchholz said. "We are the largest communications electronics facility in the world."

She said retirees often relocate simply because Augusta does not offer enough suitable high tech jobs.

Mr. Moroney said Augusta needs to let the Lockheeds and the Boeings of the world know about this stream of high tech employees and the possibility of growth and development at Augusta Regional Airport.