Commercial expansion at Paulding airport could be tested - CBS46 News

Commercial expansion at Paulding airport could be tested by new commissioners

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PAULDING COUNTY, GA (CBS46) -

Several candidates for the Paulding County Commission found their way to victory in the primary election Tuesday night, and all have made no secret of their intent to oppose the commercial expansion of the Paulding County airport.

"I knocked on hundreds of doors, talked to hundreds of people," said Vernon Collett, talking about his campaign efforts. "To me it was overwhelming, 70 percent said they did not want (the airport) to go commercial."

Collett won the Republican primary for his post, which figures to have little or no challenge from a Democratic challenger. His anticipated election to the county commission in November could be part of a massive makeover for the board, leaving those who support the airport in the minority.

Airport Director Blake Swafford doesn't think it will matter.

"I guess they could choose to withhold some funding from the airport, and that may have a short term impact," said Swafford. "But we anticipate, with commercial service, that the airport is going to generate enough revenue to support itself."

The airport expansion has already faced four lawsuits, filed on behalf of Paulding County residents who say they don't want commercial service at the airport. So far, none of those lawsuits have derailed the process for airport authority leaders, though Swafford expects they could get hit with another suit in the coming months.

"I'll be surprised if they don't file a lawsuit," said Swafford, referring the upcoming environmental assessment, to be conducted at the airport. That assessment is part of the settlement from another lawsuit, and is key to attaining approval from the FAA to move forward on commercial airline service.

The Michael Baker Corporation is set to conduct that assessment. The company has worked with the Paulding County Airport Authority for more than a decade, causing some residents to suspect favorable treatment.

"It's a conflict of interest, because they've been involved with the development of the airport," said Sue Wilkins, whose name has appeared as a plaintiff on the lawsuits against the airport.

"They (the Michael Baker Corporation) truly have a vested interest in this project … that disqualifies them from being impartial."

Swafford said it is neither unusual, or unethical, for an airport to do business with a consulting firm they already know.

"It's not really a personal relationship at all," said Swafford. "Most of the people we've developed long term relationships with have actually left the company."

Regardless of any future lawsuits, Swafford said he expects the airport to begin offering commercial airline service to vacation destinations by the end of 2014. It would be the first airport in metro Atlanta, outside of Hartsfield-Jackson, to offer commercial airline service.

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