The other day, you may have noticed that Publisher James Phillips had a Walker Leadership project concerning the promotion of Walker County Airport-Bevill Field. The idea was that he was to write a …
The other day, you may have noticed that Publisher James Phillips had a Walker Leadership project concerning the promotion of Walker County Airport-Bevill Field. The idea was that he was to write a story and I was to write a background story. We all know whose story would likely be bigger, don’t we?
Naturally, I threatened to go to the Leadership graduation ceremony, stand up and yell, “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!” when he got his diploma. Of course, he arranged the interviews and the story ideas, so he gets the glory. (In the 1970s, we would say “the man” is putting me down, but, hey, in the 2010s I like getting a paycheck from the man, too.)
Oh, yeah — so you know, I wound up writing two stories. James did a column. Wait a minute — now it is two stories and a column.
I want the Leadership T-shirt when this is over.
(Seriously, all kidding aside, I was just fine with it, as it suited my purposes. I am still catching up to where we stand with the airport and a bunch of other entities. I figure many of you, in an era where everyone moves in and out of counties at breakneck speed, don’t know some of this background material, either, so we’ll all learn together.)
Even though I am not a pilot, what I learned was not really a surprise. For the average person, on the outset this may not be appealing and you might have skipped the stories. If you did, I would encourage you to go back to mountaineagle.com and read my stories, “Various projects proposed for airport” and “County airport vital to recruitment, economy.”
I know many don’t fly airplanes. Oh, that is for the rich, some will say. Why would we want to be concerned with that?
For a $50,000 budget, the county is getting a great bargain. We do get some local people who can have a hangar at the airport, but, frankly, that is not the point.
The attraction of a county airport like this is for economic recruitment and tourism, pure and simple. We want planes to come in from out of the county.
First, you have pilots who are skipping around not just the state but the nation. Pilots have to make a pit stop like anyone else. If you are in a car, you have convenience stores and restaurants, of course, but you also have taxpayer funded welcome centers and tourism bureaus to help those traveling.
That is what a county airport can be. It is a rest stop, for one thing, a place to stretch your legs, get some rest, have some refreshments and purchase fuel for the plane. And officials say the fuel at the Jasper-based airport is cheap. (If you didn’t know, your vehicle’s fuel is cheaper hear than surrounding places; Marion County residents stop here regularly before heading home.) Cars can be obtained to roam around Jasper if need be, but pilots who never leave the airport will leave some money locally just purchasing fuel. That’s tourism revenue. And with all the work Joey Sanders has put into the Sanders Aviation facility to make it so nice, it is no wonder that it is considered the unofficial fixed base operator.
Then you have the element of industrial recruitment. You may not think prospects are coming into the local airport, but they are. David Knight, the executive director of the Walker Development Authority, said the county could be eliminated just based on how the airport shapes up, as prospects are looking for ways to cut down their prospect list.
When a big project is in play, the state more frequently these days will fly company officials to several locations to inspect sites, he said. Sometimes 15 sites have to be covered in one day, spanning across the state. “Flying is the only way they can do it,” with only an hour allowed to visit a site before taking off again, Knight said. Harbor Freight, Yorozu and Fontaine are among the retail and industrial prospects recruited using the airport.
“A viable airport like we have is crucial to what David does,” Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis said. “Just the success we have had in the past couple of years, no doubt in my mind, is contributed in part to having the airport in the condition it is now.”
These people are all earnest when they say it. In fact, they point to the need of an extra 2,000 feet of runway space to accommodate jets and planes that prospective industry and stores use. (The jets use a lot more distance to take off in hot weather because of air density.) It might cost up to $10 million, but you begin to realize how important it is to economic development. In fact, with the extra runway, Jasper could be an alternate airport to Birmingham during bad weather. We are also filled up on T-hangars, and we have a waiting list if more are built, meaning steady income to the county.
This is a real economic and tourist engine for the area. The idea of it being a weekend playground for the rich is grossly out of date. We need the airport to recruit more industry and tourists. Hopefully, we can find way of matching grants or even partner with the City of Jasper or maybe even others to be able to improve the airport and keep it viable. We need to give it more visibility and encourage our youth to be more interested in aviation.
Even in its current state, it is a great bargain to the county and has earned its keep many times over with the business it has brought in. Let’s hope we can find a way to improve it to keep it viable.
Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s news editor.