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Commission preps airport expansion questions for future

By Justin Boron

While Clayton County voters pick the next chairman of the county commission today, the current administration is setting up the winner for a decision that could affect the scope of Tara Field's purpose and ultimately the future development of the panhandle area.

An environmental assessment to determine whether the county can expand the airport, without negatively impacting the area surrounding it, is being conducted.

Today, the commission is prepared to establish a $149,166 budget for the study.

Ninety-five percent of the cost will be covered by a Federal Aviation Administration grant. The Georgia Department of Transportation and the county will put up the remaining 5 percent or about $7,000, said Wayne Patterson, the director of transportation and development.

The most tangible and imperative expansion on the airport's horizon would be a 1,000 foot extension of the runway to the southwest away from U.S. Highway 19/41, said Frank Bailey, who sits on the Airport Authority Board and is the campaign manager for county commission chairman candidate Eldrin Bell.

Bailey says the Tara Field's runway is sufficient to land planes.

But insurance companies don't see it that way.

Many of the planes landing at the airport lose their insurance as soon as they touch down because the runway is too short, Bailey said.

The evaluation will only recommend whether an extension is feasible, he said. The decision to carry out the improvement project will be left for the next administration.

The project is necessary if county officials want Tara Field to be in the running for federal grants that may go to more established airports like Falcon Field in Peachtree City, Bailey said.

Both county commission candidates have expressed some interest in airport expansion, but have left unclear the specifics of their plans for the lower area of the county.

One of the cloudy details has been a joint-ownership agreement for the airport between Henry County and Clayton County.

Clayton County has owned the airport since 1992 even though it sits inside the Henry County border.

Before this year, Henry County hadn't expressed much interest in the airport.

But a series of proposals, spearheaded by Henry County Commissioner Gerry Adams, who also manages the airport, looked to be gaining momentum until Clayton County officials decided in October to leave the decision for the next county commission chairman.

Although Bell has not said he is opposed to joint-ownership, Bailey, his campaign manager, sees some obstacles.

The creation of a new airport authority n which would include four representatives from each county and a rotating spot held by each county's commission chairman n has been the largest barrier to an inter-governmental agreement, he said.

"It's going to be hard to work something out with Henry County," Bailey said.

William Dickerson, the chairman of the Airport Authority Board, had equal criticism for joint-ownership.

"It would be like trying to work under two bosses," he said.

Bell's opposition, Republican nominee Michael Onyemenam, has embraced the idea of shared ownership of the airport, saying it would be a valuable partnership.