KENNESAW — Cobb is taking off, and its airport is growing to meet new demand.
At a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction for a new $2.9 million air traffic control tower and an $800,000 customs facility at Cobb County Airport-McCollum Field, the economic growth of the county was cited as the primary reason for the upgrades.
County Chairman Tim Lee said the improvements speak volumes for the future of the county and will allow Cobb to be more competitive in attracting new jobs and businesses.
“I think we have the best airport in the region,” Lee said. “We have the best airport in the state. And I know that we’re going to continue to grow business as a result of it. So, our efforts to continue to be attractive to business expansion and jobs, this contributes to it significantly.”
Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents the area, said the improvements mirror the economic expansion of the county.
“As the airport grows, and the services grow here, so do we as Cobb County,” she said.
The new, 78-foot tower, to be built by Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Moss & Associates Inc., is expected to open in January, and will be about 20 feet taller than the existing tower.
Its construction is funded by a $1.25 million federal grant and a $125,000 state grant. The county, which owns the airport, will pay the remainder — about $1.53 million — from its general fund, according to Karl Von Hagel, airport manager.
The customs facility, expected to open next summer, will be built by Atlanta-based YLH Construction Company Incorporated and will be financed by the airport’s fixed-base operator Hawthorne Global Aviation Services.
Von Hagel, who has managed McCollum Field since 1993, said the airport did not have a control tower when he started because the level of traffic didn’t warrant it. Out of the 5,000 airports in the country, Von Hagel said only 500 have control towers.
The existing tower was built in 1994, Von Hagel said, but to get the Federal Aviation Administration to fund the operation of the tower, it had to be built first.
“We had to build (the existing tower) with all local funds, so we built it as inexpensively as we could,” he said. “And it’s lasted us for 20 years, which is actually what our projected life was for it. So, we’re actually right on schedule.”
Goreham said since the existing tower opened in 1995, there have been 1.9 million takeoffs and landings at McCollum Field.
The county has outgrown the existing tower, Von Hagel said, and the new tower will allow the airport to upgrade its equipment to meet federal standards.
“The equipment we have, we ran out of space to run the wires and the equipment inside the building, so we have wires running outside the building to get out,” he said. “We do have some glare issues up there. We have some operational challenges that we can improve, and we can also bring the airport up to meet the current FAA standards.”
Regarding the customs facility, Von Hagel said the demand for international flights into McCollum field is rising.
“We did a survey,” he said. “We anticipate we have about 40 flights a month of our base customers that cannot come back directly to the airport. They have to go somewhere else first, land, then come home. We don’t know how many of our potential customers are going to the other airports because they can’t come here direct.”
Von Hagel said the facility will allow the airport to provide more services to customers so the county will not be at a disadvantage when companies are looking to relocate their businesses. Private planes are about saving time, he added, and any additional stops a company might have to make reduces those savings.
The improvements to the airport are not expected to increase air traffic, Von Hagel said, because many of McCollum’s tenants return to the airport after international flights after stopping at a customs facility elsewhere. “You’re not going to see a dramatic increase in traffic,” he said. “We have 175 takeoffs and landings a day. If we get two or three international flights a day, we’ll be thrilled.”
According to county officials, the airport has an economic impact of about $112 million annually and supports more than 800 jobs in hospitality and restaurant industries.
Von Hagel has said there are about 250 daily employees based at the airport, including two county employees — himself and an airfield maintenance worker. About 17 companies operating out of the airport employ the other 248, he added.
The airport manager said McCollum’s hangars were at 100 percent capacity before the recession in 2007-08, but now the facility is at about 90 to 95 percent full.