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September 2019
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At airport-tech park, failing to plan is planning to fail

    In the first place, let’s be clear: From the World English Dictionary— “Bond –finance, a certificate of debt issued in order to raise funds. It carries a fixed rate of interest and is repayable with or without security at a specified future date.”
    So when the commissioners say they have a $3.9 million bond for the “horseshoe” portion of the airport, it means they have borrowed that amount. There is nothing fancy about a government saying bond, rather than loan, that absolves them of acknowledging the debt.
    The county has had this aviation-tech park bond for a decade, during which time they have paid $1.3 million in interest ($11,000 per month). They have paid back none of the $3.9 million principal, nor have they generated a dime of revenue.
     The county intends to refinance its debt so they can keep paying favorable terms to the bank. If the next decade is like the past, we are looking at a potential $2.6 million spent on interest on a $3.9 million debt.
    There is also hope the federal government will give $1 million to the county to pay down this debt. Apparently none of our financially conservative Republicans in office are the least bit squeamish about taking federal funds. We’ll help Rush Limbaugh and give him the lead, “And now the Obama administration is giving a $1 million in our tax dollars to an airport business park, where there aren’t any businesses.”
    The need to re-finance isn’t the problem itself, it merely illustrates the problem: the absence of any defined business plan and a disgraceful lack of leadership going back the entire decade regarding the tech park in the horseshoe.   
    This lack of clear direction was most evident during a meeting years ago at the airport when Ed Marger, who served on an advisory committee, expressed hopes that a major shipping hub might locate there. During the same meeting then sole commissioner Rob Jones said they weren’t looking to see anything too large locate there. Neither Marger or Jones acknowledged the huge contradiction in the statements made during the same meeting, leaving the public wondering which path we were aiming for. Unfortunately neither sized business showed up. When you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to attract anything.
      The economy has been blamed for the poor airport prospects, but this doesn’t seem to be true. In Savannah, well-known luxury jet company Gulfstream is expanding. From  Savannah’s Channel 3 website, “Gulfstream Aerospace has had a significant and growing impact on Savannah.  In the last several years the aircraft manufacturer has not only brought thousands of manufacturing jobs to the area, but they’ve even helped create what many call the ‘aviation corridor.’”
    Other stories online showed a small airport in Louisiana breaking ground on their third corporate hangar on June 6th. Aviation is not as dead everywhere as our local officials would say.
    The idea of airport commerce still sounds as solid as when it was robustly touted by past commissioner Billy Newton. It was thought that owners of expensive aircrafts would use facilities here to refurbish and maintain their multi-million dollar planes and some companies would base them here, rather than in the crowded metro-area, generating a considerable amount of revenue.
    One local pilot who worked with corporate jets responded immediately in a Progress followup citing a list of reasons why this plan wouldn’t work here. He was widely denounced at the time, but a decade later the stage may be set for an I told you so.
   From the first, things didn't go well with the business side of the airport. The property purchase by commissioner Newton had a weird twist where a business partner of his became the seller right as the deal went down, though the price to the county was judged reasonable. Then work on the airport was constantly delayed. The same person who was one of the property sellers, Lee Mullins, had difficulty completing the work through his contracting firm.
    Construction has now been completed, which is a solid step forward. Even though it took years longer than expected this is something to move forward on.
    On the business-side nothing, literally nothing, has happened in a decade. The county is only marketing the project through word-of-mouth and, not surprising, the airport manager doesn't recall the last serious inquiry.
    We expect more from our commissioners and airport authority. Like a pilot and co-pilot, a clear flight plan is needed. Borrowing  more money and hoping someone wanting a corporate hangar will show up isn't a plan.
    After a decade, you might say it is time for a Plan B, but we never really had a Plan A.