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City plans high-tech ind. park at airport
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You’ve heard of Savannah’s Gulfstream plane manufacturing center. Imagine something like that here. Or something better, perhaps.

Covington’s airport is unique in the eastern United States, in that it’s not even close to capacity. The airport, located north of town, has 550 acres available “in fence” – airport terminology for land inside the Federal Aviation Agency-approved facility. That means companies that build there can safely taxi to their facilities.

And that means everything.

Monday night, airport officials, planners and engineers presented an update on the airport and its developing master plan to the Covington City Council. The picture couldn’t be rosier.

David Bernd, vice president of economic development for Covington/Newton County Economic Georgia USA, said the airport is within two hours of 80 percent of the continental U.S. and 59 percent of Canada. It’s 35 minutes driving from Atlanta and has direct access to Interstate 20. Officials plan to apply for status as a Foreign Trade Zone.

The plan is to build a new terminal, airport manager Vincent Passariello said, while remodeling the existing terminal as, hopefully, a hanger for the tall planes expected to be used by Baxter Pharmaceutical officials. The tails of Gulfstream-4 planes are six inches too tall for the current building, so the roof would have to be raised (and 4,000 square feet added) to make the building usable. The cost for that is estimated at about $350,000 to $400,000.

If that doesn’t happen, maybe a movie company could use it to film, he said. At this point, everything’s “conceptual.”

But what a concept! The plan is to market the 90 or so acres west of the runway (and closest to homes) for research and development companies, which have need of ready access to planes but no need for heavy truck traffic, said Ralph Forbes of Savannah-based Thomas & Hutton Engineering. 

North of the runway, additional hangar space will be needed, and maintenance facilities for the expected influx of personal planes could be built and leased.

In the southeast, on land owned by the county and the Williams family, which consented to be included in the plan because of its potential, planners expect all kinds of high-end manufacturing. Forbes said a taxiway could be built from the runway to any buildings. To make a tentative master plan map, Forbes took the layout of Savannah’s Gulfstream facility and inserted it nicely onto the 180 acres southeast of the runway.

The potential is obvious, he said.

Many funding sources are available, either as potentials or already set aside, said Mayor Ronnie Johnston. That includes money from the 2011 SPLOST. Many parcels of land have been bought and put “inside the fence” in the past few years, he said, with exactly this type of plan in mind.

“It’s about to become a high-end industrial park,” he said.

Bernd said state officials are fully on-board with the county, pointing out that 2.4 million people make up the workforce within just 45 minutes of the airport. And with 550 acres of empty land, “it’s pretty exciting,” he said.
The priorities for now are to build infrastructure to the sites, then revamp and replace the terminal. There is no timeline for anything.

Bernd said the ultimate plan is for 2,000 to 5,000 new jobs at the site.