By: Scott Broden
SMYRNA — The 400-plus acres available for economic development at Smyrna Airport holds major appeal for anyone wanting to bring aviation jobs here, officials say.
“We are on the short list for a major aviation company looking for another location in the eastern United States,” Smyrna Airport Executive Director John Black said while recently pointing out the available land for lease. “That’s something a lot of airports don’t have is the ability to expand. We not only have a large economic engine here, we have a lot of potential for future growth.”
The Tennessee Economic and Community Development sees the airport’s potential, as well, and that’s why Black serves on an aerospace committee along with Allen Howell, the president of Corporate Flight Management, the largest tenant at the airport.
The committee also includes Murfreesboro City Manager Rob Lyons.
The airport is part of an aviation corridor stretching as far north to the Clarksville area, where the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division is located at Fort Campbell, Ky., Lyons said.
The committee also includes Chad Gehrke, the manager of the smaller Murfreesboro Airport. His airport provides the runway space for Middle Tennessee State University to train aviation majors.
The corridor includes the University of Tennessee Space Institute and Arnold Engineering Development Center at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma. The corridor extends south to the NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Lyons added.
“That is a unique alignment of expertise, workforce and investment,” said Lyons, adding that government and business leaders need to figure out how to attract investment for more jobs centered around aviation. “We are in the early stages of identifying what that collaboration and partnership might look like, but we see the ingredients there.”
Black also sees his airport as being in the middle of an east to west corridor that includes FedEx in Memphis and the research going on at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee.
“All those companion industries and support industries play into the decision of a new company locating in Tennessee,” Black said. “A lot of times when people are looking at potential sites, the airport is the first thing they see when they come to a community.”
The Smyrna Airport has 90 acres on its east side of the runways, and this includes a six-acre solar farm and aircraft maintenance facilities.
The west side of the airport offers a 400-acre office park, of which only about 50 acres havebeen developed so far. This includes a 15,000-square-foot space for the Airport Terminal and Business Center. Another 140,000 square feet is for Corporate Flight Management, and Smyrna Air Center has 50,000 square feet.
The airport sits on grounds that started as an airfield in 1942 Army Air Force Combat Crew School to train aviators for World War II. By 1950, it became Sewart Air Force Base and operated until closing in 1970. The Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority assumed control until May 15, 1991, when the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority took over.
The county controls 60 percent, and the town 40 percent. Black started his career with the authority as the assistant director in 1991 and accepted promotion to executive director in 1998.
“Since 1991, we’ve invested over $26 million in the airport,” Black said.
The airport can only lease property, and it must be at a fair market value to be eligible for federal aviation grants.
“We can do long-term leases, which are almost equal to ownership,” Black said. ““We operate like a business. All the money that is made by this airport stays on this airport. It’s put back into the airport to maintain and grow the facility.”
The airport, which has two run ways that are 8,037 feet and 5,546 feet, owns 1,700 acres and 22 buildings that are either hangars or commercial structures. The property includes the 27-hole Smyrna Golf Course and Lee Victory Recreation Park that the airport leases to the town of Smyrna, according to an economic impact study completed by Charlie Baum, an MTSU economics professor who also serves on the County Commission.
“The airport and its related business entities directly account for $44 million in output and $34.6 million in payroll expenditures and employs 3,275 workers (full-time, part-time, or in a contracted capacity,” the study states. “The Smyrna Airport also generates over $1.1 million, in economic activity from hosting the Great Tennessee Air Show, and it facilitates flight training for the MTSU Aerospace program, which has 800 majors and a host of faculty members who teach those students.
“In sum, if the Smyrna Airport and its related economic activities were not present, the value of output (sales) in Rutherford County would decrease by 0.4 percent.”
Airport officials are working on plans to develop another 30 acres at the office park.
The plans include 20,000 square feet for a hangar with connecting taxiways, as well as office space that would be around 10,000 to 12,000 square feet.
Another part of this $10 million project is to have an adjacent 60 acres prepared for future development.
Airport officials are working to obtain the financing. It includes a $330,000 grant spread over two years from the Rutherford County Industrial Development Board.
Black, white or blue collar jobs are welcome to the airport, Black said.
“Aviation mechanics are very highly skilled and highly paid,” said Black, who oversees a staff of 15, as well as workers added in the summer. “We have leases with 35 different businesses in our airport overall.”
Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Latture agreed that Smyrna Airport definitely has an opportunity to create even more aviation-related jobs.
“I think the investment the Airport Authority has made has allowed us to market yet another opportunity for our county,” Latture said.
Having the Smyrna Airport, Murfreesboro and MTSU being a part of a larger aviation corridor “allows us to be more competitive in the region,” Latture added.
Smyrna is known for the workforce at the Nissan auto factory, which Black sees as an advantage to attracting more companies to leases at his airport.
“The automotive industry has crossover skill sets for the aviation industry,” Black said. “The most important factor for recruitment is an available skilled workforce.
“You have to be infrastructure-ready with an available workforce and with the right incentives in a very competitive world.”