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Clayton, Henry approve Tara Field sale

Photo by Curt Yeomans
The boards of commissioners for Clayton and Henry counties, this week, approved the sale of the Clayton County-owned Tara Field to Henry County.

Photo by Curt Yeomans The boards of commissioners for Clayton and Henry counties, this week, approved the sale of the Clayton County-owned Tara Field to Henry County.

By Curt Yeomans and Jason A. Smith

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Henry County, after years of attempts, finally has its collective hands on a piece of property which proponents believe will have a strong impact on development options for the area.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to sell its Tara Field airport, in Hampton, to Henry County. Henry commissioners, in turn, approved the agreement during a special called meeting on Wednesday morning.

Although Tara Field has been the property of Clayton County, it is located in Henry County, next to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The total sale price for the airport is $17.7 million, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) kicking in 84 percent of the money for the purchase, according Henry County Manager, James C. "Butch" Sanders. Henry County will pay $2.7 million towards the total price, according to Sanders.

"Since the FAA has already paid for that airport one time, we don't pay for it again," Sanders told commissioners. "You're actually buying all this for nine cents on the dollar. What we get for this is 543 acres of land, a terminal building with the attached hangar, a free-standing hangar, and a fuel barn."

Clayton County's web site shows the county has owned Tara Field, which has a 4,500-foot-long runway, since 1994.

Henry County officials have eyed Tara Field, with a desire to improve it, but it was not until February of this year, an official in either county confirmed officials from the two counties were discussing a sale. It was Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who confirmed talks were taking place at the time.

Bell said his interest in selling the airport to Henry County stemmed from a desire to make some improvements to the facility, but there was difficulty involved because Henry County had control over the land around the airport.

"Several years ago, I don't remember the number, I made the effort to expand the runway, and to make the airport what I thought would be viable, [but] we were not able to do that, because of the lack of support from Henry County at that time," Bell said.

"Further, it was a part of the resolution to my budget proposal which I offered [at that time when he wanted to extend the runway], that would help to decrease significantly the amount that citizens would have to pay in property taxes."

Bell said Clayton County could see some financial relief from selling the airport to Henry County.

Last month, Clayton County commissioners voted to increase the county's millage rate by five mills to help offset an anticipated $23 million funding shortfall in the county's fiscal year 2012 budget.

Earlier this year, Bell estimated it would cost between $25 million, and $50 million to expand and upgrade the airport.

"I would personally like to see us be able to give the citizens of this county some reduction in their property taxes," he said.

The acquisition of Tara Field is being warmly received as a great benefit.

Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis said the addition of the airport, and its surrounding property, will improve the county's options for jobs and housing, as well as its potential for future business development.

"Where a business requires very few services, residential homes require a lot, and it comes with a big price tag," Mathis said. "We are going to have to make some decisions that are going to attract business and industry to this community, and we are going to have to think outside the box."

Soon after the Henry commissioners voted to buy Tara Field, reactions began to pour in from lawmakers at the state level, applauding the decision. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, on Wednesday, praised the board, as well as State Sen. Rick Jeffares, who worked with commissioners on the endeavor.

"A comprehensive infrastructure network, including access to airport facilities, is a critical component of any successful economic development strategy," said Cagle.

"I applaud the Henry County Board of Commissioners for their vision, in acquiring this critical component of Henry County's transportation infrastructure and appreciate Sen. Jeffares' diligent work on this project. Like all of them, I look forward to future economic development successes and job growth as a result of today's announcement."

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said " I have no doubt that Tara Field will serve as one of the economic engines and will benefit Henry County and its citizens."

Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority said the acquisition of Tara Field "corrects an oversight from 1992, when the county chose not to acquire Tara Field... and the acquisition of the airport and the surrounding area gives us a tool, to be able to recruit aviation and aviation-related projects to Henry County."

Hampton City Manager Andy Pippin said buying Tara Field will benefit the county as a whole, and his city in particular. "This will be an economic engine for Henry County, and for the City of Hampton. There will be developments to follow this acquisition, and improvements to the airport. The improvements would not be made to the airport, if it remained under the ownership of Clayton County. Clayton County had no incentive to put any of its own money into this property, because all of the land surrounding it is within Henry County's tax digest."

The acquisition will also allow Henry County to become a viable alternative to other airstrips in the region, according to county spokesperson, Julie Hoover-Ernst. "Henry County is already interviewing experienced Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) and airport managers to operate the facility, which would insulate the county from all operating losses at the airport," Hoover-Ernst said.

She added that the purchase marks the second of two major economic development strategies, achieved for Henry County thus far in 2011.

"The first was obtaining funding to construct a technical school in our community, to help ensure an educated workforce for attracting industry," the spokesperson said. "Southern Crescent Technical School is expected to break ground later this year in McDonough."