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Clayton weighing Tara Field sale to Henry

Special Photo
Nash Farm Battlefield Museum Curator, Bill Dodd, stands next to one of the museum's most recent acquisitions, a miniature painting of the center panel of the Atlanta Cyclorama, used as a guide to paint the larger piece that was commissioned in 1883.

Special Photo Nash Farm Battlefield Museum Curator, Bill Dodd, stands next to one of the museum's most recent acquisitions, a miniature painting of the center panel of the Atlanta Cyclorama, used as a guide to paint the larger piece that was commissioned in 1883.

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County may be on the verge of selling the little airport it owns, Tara Field, to its neighbor, Henry County.

Henry County officials have considered ownership of Tara Field for more than a year, with an interest in improving the airport, but little had been said about whether a sale would actually take place.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell confirmed, however, that Clayton County is now looking at selling the airport to Henry County. The airport is located next to Atlanta Motor Speedway, in Henry County.

Bell said he was limited in how much he could say about a possible sale, however, because the Clayton County Board of Commissioners is planning to take up the issue during an upcoming executive session at its March 1 meeting.

"Yes, I've had some conversations [about selling the airport], but I can't say anything about it until we've had our executive session," Bell said.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners had been scheduled to publicly discuss Tara Field during a commission retreat last Friday, but it was postponed just as the discussion was beginning. Clayton County Commission Vice-Chairman Wole Ralph suggested the talks take place during an executive session at the commission's next meeting, and the other commissioners agreed.

Last Friday, Bell said he could not confirm a price Clayton County officials will ask for Tara Field, other than it exceeds $10 million. "Ten million [dollars] was batted around at one time, but that's not accurate," he said. "It's much more than that."

On Monday, Henry County Commission Chairperson Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis said she has heard rumors about Clayton County officials pondering a sale of the airport to Henry County, but she added no "dialogue" has taken place between the two counties.

She said Henry County officials are very interested in buying the airport, at least to resolve the issue of two separate governing bodies controlling the airport and it's surrounding area.

"We control all of the land that surrounds Tara Field," Mathis said. "It's not easy to improve the airport when it's owned by one county, while all the land around it is controlled by another county. You can't really do much down there when you have two different governing bodies to deal with."

In November 2009, Mathis told the Clayton News Daily that she had sent a letter a few months earlier to Clayton County commissioners, announcing Henry County's interest in beginning a conversation about buying Tara Field. She said, at the time, that she got no response from Clayton County officials, though.

While Bell was tight-lipped about the issue, he did confirm that he has received an inquiry from Henry County officials, about Tara Field, more recently than 2009. Mathis said, on Monday, that she sent a second letter to Clayton County officials two months ago, on the behalf of the Henry County Board of Commissioners.

"I thought a formal letter, on the behalf of the Henry County Board of Commissioners, would help jump start a conversation," she said.

The first public indication that a sale of Tara Field was in the works came from Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott during the Clayton County Board of Commissioners' recent retreat, however.

During the gathering, Wainscott told Clayton commissioners "expansion is critical" at Tara Field, "whether its [by] our community or another community," to keep up with other regional airports across the state. Some of the investments he is recommending for Tara Field include expanding its 4,500-foot runway by an additional 1,000 feet, and installing a new instrument landing system.

"Whether we own it or somebody else owns it, it affects our economy," Wainscott said. "And, if we're not competitive within the region, we're really going to squander our resource."

Mathis said there's one threat of competition from Tara Field's own back yard. "Spalding County has made known their intention to start their own airport," she said. "If an airport is opened down there, it will directly compete with Tara Field."

Bell indicated some of Clayton County's interest in selling Tara Field may stem from the cost of upgrades. He said it would cost between $25 million, and $50 million to expand and upgrade the airport. Compounding the issue, Bell said, is a Federal Aviation Administration regulation that stipulates any money made from an airport has to be put back into that same airport.

Wainscott said, as an economic development director, the issue of the airport's ownership is not as important as what is done to improve it. "It's not as important to me who owns it, just that its utilized, and it's maximized," he said.