By Justin Boron
Tara Field is priming its economic engine for a commercial expansion, Clayton County officials say, but not one that would be detrimental to residents living in the area.
Property recently bought on the airport's north side - which an airport official said is affiliated with Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy - coupled with an ongoing runway expansion project could pave the way for additional hangars, larger jets, and commercial developments like a restaurant.
However, the economic potential of the Clayton County owned and operated airport in Hampton draws a fine line between the revenue that expansion could generate and the environmental impact that more frequent, noisier jets would have on hundreds of homes in the panhandle region as well as the air traffic flow at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"There are probably some limits in how much you could allow it to grow to maximize its potential without it hurting Hartsfield," said Emory Brock, the director of economic development for Clayton County.
Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County Commission, said he doesn't see the airport facilitating major regional traffic. But at the same time, he said he wants it to be a revenue generator for the county, which has owned the airport since 1991.
"It's not giving us the kind of return, that we should be getting," he said.
Using the airport as a revenue source would diverge partly from the original motivation behind Clayton County's purchase of the airport situated near the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Henry County.
The reasoning then, Brock said, was to enable Clayton County to monitor the airport's growth and protect its development interests that were already largely impacted by Atlanta airport expansion on the north side of the county.
For more than a decade, the airport has remained relatively untouched.
In the meantime, Bell said it has not garnered revenue while still draining budget money from the county.
Talk of harvesting the airport's potential, particularly its proximity to the race track, surfaced last year when the Henry County Board of Commissioners offered to purchase and add several parcels of property to the airport in exchange for joint-ownership of it.
But incoming elected officials Bell and Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph nixed the idea.
Ralph, whose district in southern Clayton County is directly affected by the airport, said at the time, the potential for high-end housing in the region outweighed a major airport expansion.
He said he still feels that way now.
"We don't want Clayton County to be trapped between two different airports," he said.
Henry County Commissioner Gerry Adams, who also manages Tara Field, said the joint-ownership proposal is pretty much dead.
Frank Bailey, a member of the Clayton County Airport Authority board, said the Clayton County is moving ahead with runway expansion on its own.
He also said the Cathys recently purchased the property north of the airport.
Stephanie Thompson, a real estate official for Chick-fil-A, Inc., confirmed the transaction took place but could not release specific details or say whether Cathy was the principle owner of the property.
The Cathy family currently hangars its corporate jet at Newnan-Coweta Airport in Coweta County.
Another factor propelling Tara Field's growth, Brock said, is its presence on a Federal Aviation Administration reliever list which defines auxiliary airports to be used if for some catastrophic reason, the Atlanta airport couldn't land planes.
It is also the smallest airport on that reliever list, he said.
"It has the greatest opportunity for growth, and that's what's so scary about it," he said.