2010
09.11

From CatWalkChatt and Walker County Messenger, 08/31/2010:

    “The Barwick LaFayette Airport is seeking a $500,000 grant for fencing to secure the airport runway. Airport officials have sought a fence for several years, the primary reason being that deer are frequently seen on the runway. Ron Westbrook co-manages the airport and claims that deer are seen on a weekly basis. ‘We have had a few close calls, but fortunately haven’t had anyone hit one,’ Westbrook said.”

That article went on to say how the $500,000 grant would pay for a ten-foot high fence nearly two-miles-long around the airport, keeping out deer and “wild children.” Funding would have to be approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation, but would actually be provided through OneGeorgia Authority, a state agency providing loans and grants to underpopulated rural communities and their neighbors.

One week after BlueBird closed and took 350 jobs down the drain, LaFayette’s city fathers announced plans to revitalize the city’s economy by begging the state for money to install a fence around the airport next door. They, in their infinite wisdom, realize that keeping deer and “wild children” away from the landing strip will do more to help this community and draw in new businesses than anything else they could be focusing their energy on.

…or they don’t really care and are resuming business as usual, taking care of their own friends and personal interests while everything else in town goes to seed.

Of course the city (and county) can’t flip a switch and instantly create new jobs – but investments into infrastructure, like roads and rails, make the community more appealing to businesses that can move jobs into the area. OneGeorgia funds can likely be used for any number of construction projects vastly more important than building a 2-mile-long fence around Barwick-LaFayette Airport.

Some have speculated that the funding is only available for an airport project. If that’s the case it puts things in a different light, but even that “free” money cost the city something since it required employees to spend time writing a grant application. And if the grant request is accepted, funds will probably only pay for materials, not installation. (A 2-mile-long ten-foot-high fence requires 105,600 square feet of fencing – $500,000 comes out to only $4.74 per square foot.) That will cost the city even more as Public Works employees are pulled off their regular jobs and forced to install a massive deer barrier.

But as this report from last Saturday’s Chattanooga Times Free Press shows, the city isn’t concerned about a mere fence. It’s planning to construct an entirely new airport terminal:

    “Initially, airport staff and city officials told the Times Free Press and other media that the grant was to build a fence around the facility to keep out deer. [Dr. Paul] Shaw apologized for the confusion and set the record straight, explaining that the fence project would come from additional funding and the grant they are seeking would go to build the new terminal.”

So either Airport Manager Westbrook and Airport Board Chairman Shaw aren’t on the same page with this project, or the city intentionally sent one message to the local media on a weekday and then sent a completely different message to the regional media on a holiday weekend when nobody reads the news. Either way, this is a bad idea for the City of LaFayette.

    “Dr. Paul Shaw, chairman of the airport’s board, said the airport is applying for a $500,000 Georgia One grant that would help build a new terminal, which Shaw hopes will make that difference to flyers.”

The key term here is “help build.” $500,000 alone won’t build a new airport terminal, because when you look at realistic numbers that half-million is barely enough to build the 2-mile-long fence. Remember, this is the same city that has spent over $900,000 so far just to build three softball fields with a common restroom facility. In light of that project’s cost, a new airport terminal would cost at LEAST $3 million to construct using even the most conservative estimates.

With OneGeorgia Authority funds going to build a terminal, that fence would be built “from additional funding” (Shaw’s words). That additional funding is going to come from the city, either out of general tax revenue or (most likely) the 2013 SPLOST. Now we’ve graduated from “free” money building a deer fence around the existing airport to the “free” money helping build a new, larger terminal while LaFayette and Walker County taxpayers foot the bill for the fence. Before this is all over with, local taxpayers will pay for the fence AND the terminal while OneGeorgia grant funds go to purchase a new sign or some other small token for the facility.

    “The current terminal, which would be torn down along with a hanger to make room, has termite problems in addition to other issues. Shaw said it needs updates to meet federal regulations, including an additional light on the tower. .. Federal inspectors would ‘have a field day’ at the LaFayette airport, he said.”

Here again we see a city leader using the city’s neglect of its own property as an excuse. After last year’s September floods the city government used its own neglect of roads and the Public Safety Building as a reason to get FEMA funding. In 2008 the city used the poor condition of its 15-year-old golf course clubhouse as an excuse to spend $1.4 million to build a new one. And just a month ago, the city council and mayor used the poor condition of Patton Stadium as an excuse NOT to invest any additional funding into that facility. Now their failure to call an exterminator for the metal-framed airport terminal is being trotted out as a reason for replacing that building entirely.

But whatever the action (or inaction) is, we cannot forget that the sad shape of the city’s buildings, roads, and other properties is directly traceable back to decisions made by city leaders in the first place. We cannot allow the excuse of neglect to stand, to serve as a valid reason for the city to continue funding its leaders’ pet projects or to reject those projects the City Council isn’t personally interested in. We should instead hold those same leaders responsible for the neglect and ask them why the airport (and the Public Safety Building, and most city streets, and Patton Stadium) were allowed to fall into such disrepair in the first place.

    “The airport in LaFayette has the oldest terminal in the area, according to Shaw. Calhoun, Dalton, Rome and McMinnville have all built new terminals since LaFayette’s was built in the 1980s.”

Dr. Shaw failed to mention that all those other airports, with the exception of Dalton’s, are owned by city-county cooperatives, not single municipalities. He also neglected to point out that the smallest of those neighboring cities, Calhoun and McMinnville, both have twice the population of LaFayette and thus have a higher tax base to support airport operation and new terminal construction. Calhoun, Dalton, Rome, and McMinnville also have strong industrial employers located nearby and have enough commercial air traffic to justify the existence of their airports. LaFayette has little commercial traffic, and (as it turns out) barely any traffic at all.

Earlier this week Airport Manager Ron Westbrook said the local field houses 21 planes, 19 in hangars and 2 tied down on the tarmac. Outside of those local aircraft, how frequently do out of town visitors fly into LaFayette for a visit? According to Westbrook, “not often.”

So essentially the city is preparing to invest a great amount of time and money (from a mixture of state and local sources) into upgrading an airport terminal used by less than two-dozen local residents. An investment not into infrastructure or development, but into a hangout where some of the area’s wealthiest go to avoid their wives and drink beer when they get tired of fishing.

Between 2005 and 2008 Barwick-LaFayette Airport lost more than $400,000 ($173,000 in 2008 alone), not including additional hundreds of thousands spent during the same time period to build a second runway and several new hangars. One reason for that continual financial loss is the limited number of ways the airport can make money: selling fuel and renting hangars. Just like fuel bought from the Kangaroo or Pit-Stop, gas being sold by the airport has a low markup and isn’t very profitable by itself – and the city rents its T-hangars out so cheaply there’s no way they could ever help the airport break even.

LaFayette’s hangars vary in size (several are reported to be at least 230’x50′), but the highest hangar rental fee is $190 per month. By comparison, 20’x40′ self-storage units are currently renting for around $250 a month. (Keep that in mind next time you need a storage barn.) At least one of the hangars is being used as a business office, saving its occupant thousands of dollars a month versus the going rate of commercial office space.

Despite the continual operating loss and millions spent on improvements so far, airport usage hasn’t increased a bit. In fact, since 1999 the number of planes based at Barwick-LaFayette Airport has dropped by more than half, from 48 to 21. It also hasn’t done a thing to attract out-of-town guests, and most of the ones it does bring in buy fuel for their plane, pick up a complimentary cup of coffee from the existing terminal, and head along their merry way without spending another penny in town. They can’t exactly call a taxi to the airport or hop on a city bus, can they?

In light of the airport’s continual losses, potential liability (“Federal inspectors would ‘have a field day’ at the LaFayette airport, he said”), and complete lack of usefulness, the city shouldn’t be wasting its time looking for grants to rebuild the terminal – it should be looking for a private buyer for the facility or working on a plan to close the place down.

At the very least they should be putting tax money where it will do the most good for the most citizens instead of building another toy for a small group of people who are quite capable of providing it for themselves. Someone in a situation of OWNING A PLANE can darn well afford to pay for a hangar and airport and whatever other amenities they desire without the city tapping everyone else’s wallet or begging for state grants to provide them. Invest that money into parks, sidewalks, asphalt, police officers, fire trucks, and ditch digging. Find grants for those things, not for upgrading somebody’s money-losing toy.

If members of the City Council and other leaders within LaFayette’s government all love golf and airplanes so much, they should go play with their toys – on their own time and their own dime – and leave running the city up to people who will put the interests of the entire community above their own special interests and hobbies.

Monday night at 7 the LaFayette City Council will meet to discuss its 2011 budget and handle other business; even if the airport isn’t on the agenda those in attendance should hold leaders responsible for their decisions and hold their feet to the fire by making them answer hard questions:

Who serves on this previously unknown airport board, and what are their qualifications? Does this board make decisions outside the authority of the City Council, and if they do what kind of controls and limits (if any) are in place to keep them in check? Can the Council or the airport board justify spending more on the airport, considering its significant operating losses each and every year? If the city does get grant money, can they guarantee no city or found money (including SPLOST) will be added to it?

The very LAST thing we need is another “open check-book” project that eats up every available penny of tax money that should be going into meaningful projects like roads and sidewalks. But as long as we continue to reelect the same people to city government, there will be no end of the backwards priorities that drive that kind of decision making.

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6 comments so far

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  1. SPLOST has to be approved by voters. The solution there is for voters to say enough is enough. We want any SPLOST initiative presented with a complete breakdown of where those monies will go and how long it will take for the project to finish. Ballfields taking more than seven years to complete at an almost 600% markup for the fields themselves and a community bathroom really opens my eyes. Just what are those toilets made of? Gold? Better, who holds the contract? A relative of a city council member or mayor? Or maybe one of their drinking buddies. The same thing for the golf course. A fifteen-year old clubhouse isn’t old. The good old boy system has to go in this area. The same can be said for the county commissioner and her constant purchases of large tracts of land. For what? More golf courses? I’ve seen some appeasement exercises lately. But when examined closely, they’re nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
    So, here’s a solution for the airport’s inability to bring in money. Instead of having taxpayers foot the bill for the new terminal building and fence, rent out the airport for to a producer of 3rd rate sci-fi movies. The mayor and his cohorts can have this producer pay them to blow up the terminal building and replace it. That really does happen. As for the extremely overbudget softball fields, open them for use or write off the project as a bad investment. Our mayor is supposedly a businessman. Well, act that way. Treat the city as a business. If it’s losing money, get rid of the problem. Now, to deal with the commissioner’s propensity to purchase overpriced land lots. Parks. Lots of lovely parks for children to play in. They don’t need state of the art play equipment or specially paved walking trails. A natural park is ideal for kids to explore and learn about the environment. Also, it’ll give them a place to go. Then the next thing we need to do is take the checkbook out of these fools hands. Of course, this is all a pipe dream. The biggest thing to do is get these people out of control of our tax money and have a group of people interested in helping the real taxpayers take over, with far less secrecy when conducting business.

  2. Wild children?! What is this, Neverland?

  3. Thought Mr. Westbrook retired from the airport. He’s retired AF. Good man. Believe him when he talks to you………

  4. Ground-level consensus indicates a little more than a new fence is goning to needed before the airport is brought up to business grade.

    Any serious business these days do not fly prop-planes, and the old JA pumps installed year ago (by a private employer, no longer here) are in such need of repair they are just about useless.

    The last grant or so, bought and paid for a GPS system they never use………..

    Sounds like smoke and mirrors again…………

  5. I’ve got one for ya. The airport wants a fence for wild children and wild animals, but yet it now shares an entrance road with a bunch of wild golf drunks putting around in their little golf carts. I think I’d be much more worried about them poking around than a deer or two. Not to mention the stray golf balls being hit in that direction, but I’m led to believe common sense does not dictate in every situation around this fine town

  6. Might have a better one for ‘ya King D.

    Do you think the esteemed Director of the Municipal Airport’s pilot’s license was manf.d & issued out of Mexico, too?