Developer sets sights on Pine Mountain Airport

Officials in Harris County, Georgia, are in a quandary. A developer of a resort hotel — essential, they say, to the success of the county’s main tourist attraction, Callaway Gardens — wants to close Pine Mountain Airport (PIM). But county officials — and the FAA — want the airport to stay open.

The airport, Callaway Gardens-Pine Mountain Airport, is located approximately 30 miles north of Columbus on the west side of the state. It features a 5,000-foot runway — and it stands in the way of a developer who wants to build a resort hotel to complement the facilities already in place at Callaway Gardens, a destination resort. The resort began as a private garden, but has since grown to include 14,000 acres of gardens, a convention center, a golf course and a recreation area including a lake. It already has several hotels, vacation homes and cottages near by. It is owned by the Callaway Foundation, a non-profit organization, which counts on visitors to keep the gardens in the green.

“These are lean times for us,” says Rachel Crumbley, a Callaway spokesperson. “We opened in 1952. In 2002, we celebrated our 50th anniversary. As we move into the next 50 years, we need to find a way to bring more people here.”

Among the suggestions to attract more visitors is to build more resort type homes and a new luxury hotel with a wellness center. The latter would mean the destruction of the airport.

“We found a company to finance the hotel,” Crumbley says. “In order to get them to move ahead on this, we need to close the airport. It isn’t a very busy airport. We do have some visitors who fly in, but there are two other airports with more services close by. One is 18 miles away, the other is 35 miles away.”

The Callaway Foundation operates the airport through a lease arrangement with the county. The FBO is open Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There are four aircraft based at the field and there are no hangars.

Ironically, in the 1960s, the Callaway Foundation supplied the land that the airport now sits on.

“The foundation donated the land to Harris County to develop the airport so the county could get grants to build the airport from the state and the FAA,” explains Carol Silva, manager of Harris County. “After land was donated to the county, the county went to the FAA for a grant equal to the fair market value of the airport. In essence the FAA feels that they paid for the airport. The Callaway Foundation sees something else. Once the airport was built, the county leased the airport to the Callaway Foundation.”

Pilots who are accustomed to flying in to resorts might wonder why someone would get rid of a perfectly good airport so close to the property.

“Callaway tells us their equity partner has told them they won’t invest in the hotel if the airport remains because the equity partner feels the airport would disturb the guests,” said Silva, adding that county officials “are in a quandary. We want Callaway to succeed. The only industry we have here is Callaway and a poultry plant. We hope to attract more industry with the airport, such as developing a business park, and if we have to chose between the airport or the resort hotel, it will be a very difficult decision to make.”

If Callaway decides to walk away from the airport, it can give the county a 60-day notice of intent to vacate. The runway would remain, but what little services there are now, such as the part-time FBO with a fuel truck, would likely go away.

“Closing the airport is not a decision we would make lightly,” stressed Crumbley. “The airport is part of us, but we may have to do this in order to survive.”

Silva added that the county does not have plans to close the airport, and that the FAA has told them that the airport should remain open.

“We have been told by the FAA in no uncertain terms that they do not want to close the airport,” she said. “They do not want to set that precedent.”

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