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January 11, 2013

Local leaders explore airport options

CULLMAN — If the Cullman Regional Airport at Folsom Field is a significant local asset — and most indicators suggest it is — how can it best be used to bring jobs to the area while capitalizing on other built-in economic assets Cullman County has to offer?

Local leaders met with one of the state’s top planning officials Thursday to weigh that question, focusing on the role Folsom Field could play in future scenarios to further develop the local economy.

Economic development officials, educational leaders and municipal heads brought public planning expert Tucson Roberts to town Thursday for a half-day tour of the airport, and to begin an ongoing consultation about how Folsom Field’s long-term growth can augment that of the county as a whole.

Meeting with airport director Bob Burns and others, Roberts said Folsom Field, on first glance, appears to be primed to capitalize on regional aviation-dependent growth in a number of ways — even if it’s still a bit early to commit to a single path.

“You’ve got a really nice airport; actually very nice,” he said. “The question is, what is the best way to use it? ... You want to develop your workforce and train people here for skilled work, but then you have to have jobs in their field waiting for them; jobs that will keep those people here, so they don’t receive their training here and then move away for the jobs.”

Roberts is Dean and Special Assistant to the President for Aviation and Workforce development of the Alabama Aviation Center at Enterprise State Community College. He was recently named to the position following a 10-year stint as President of the Covington County Economic Development office in South Alabama.

Cullman Economic Development Agency Assistant Director Dale Greer said Roberts’ observations initiate exactly the sort of discussion local leaders are ready to have.

“We have been looking at the airport’s potential for a long time, and now, with Huntsville growing,  Cullman has started to see more interest in the airport from outside,” said Greer. “In particular, there’s more interest in MRO [maintenance, repair and overhaul]. There is a demand for facilities that are within a one-hour flight time from Huntsville, and we’ve begun seeing interest in that.

“What our leaders in Cullman wanted was for Tucson to kind of look at our airport and give us an overview; give us some advice. We’re essentially asking what our potential for growth is, and how we can work toward it.”

Roberts’ itinerary Thursday brought in most of those who’d play a role in any new endeavor to make Folsom Field a more robust engine for economic growth. In addition to lunching with airport’s board of directors, Roberts also met with Wallace State Dean of Applied Technologies Jimmy Hodges, administrators at the Cullman Area Career Center and elected officials from the City of Cullman and the Cullman County Commission.

With a 700-foot expansion in the works to extend its exiting 5,500-foot runway, construction of two new hangars and room for expansion, Folsom Field may be poised to take a big step forward in what it offers both residents and outsiders — but most agreed Thursday’s discussion was just a starting point.

“There are a lot of things the airport can do, but what we heard from Tucson — and what we really brought him here for — was feedback on what makes the most sense for Cullman,” said Greer.

“They’re in the middle of [implementing] a master plan for the airport now, and what we did today was to present what we have to offer to a very experienced person; one who’s had a lot of success in South Alabama with integrating aviation into a long-range economic development plan. What we’ll hear back from him, after some research, is some ideas on how our airport can use what’s around us, here in Cullman, to realize all of that potential.”

* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

 

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