Construction of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport terminal is expected to be completed by mid-2013.
ALBANY, Ga. -- As she looks out on the impressive steel skeleton that by mid-2013 will be a brightly-lit glass-and-steel terminal building with every modern convenience and necessity required of such facilities, Southwest Georgia Regional Airport Director Yvette Aehle thinks an odd thought:
"I'm glad the folks at the (regional) Federal Aviation Administration building in Atlanta don't get out of their offices very often."
Because FAA regional officials -- chief among them Airport Planner and Program Manager Aimee McCormick -- did leave Atlanta and take Aehle up on an invitation to visit the Albany airport and see first-hand the condition of the terminal that has served the airport since 1958, air travelers in Southwest Georgia are only a few months away from a terminal makeover that has many local officials excitedly predicting a game-changing economic development opportunity for Albany and indeed the entire region.
"I'm not saying this new terminal will necessarily bring jobs to Albany, Dougherty County and Southwest Georgia," Albany Aviation Commission Board Vice Chairman Sanford Hillsman said, "but it's going to offer a bold first impression to travelers who have never been here. And many of those travelers are business people, the kind of people who can bring jobs to our region.
"I've flown to a lot of places, and I believe airports set the standard for what you expect to see in any given town. We're about to make a bold statement to the people flying into Albany."
With the help of FAA officials who "became our biggest cheerleaders in Washington," Aehle fought for and finally secured some $16.8 million in funding that will be used to complete a three-phase construction project at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport. Phase 1, which involved prep work to get land at the airport ready for construction of the terminal, has been completed, and Phase 2 is well under way.
Construction of the approximately 25,000-square-foot terminal is expected to be completed by late June, and after all tenants have successfully moved into the new structure, demolition of the outdated 45-year-old terminal building will begin. New, more convenient short-term and long-term parking lots will be built once the old terminal has been removed.
"I can't tell you how amazing it feels to look out there and see that building going up," Aehle, who has been director of the Albany-based airport for eight years, said of the terminal. "There were times when I wasn't sure that the Aviation Commission and the City Commission fully understood my vision for the airport, but they trusted me. If there wasn't that trust, this project never would have moved forward."
While some dismiss improvements at the airport as unnecessary, those who have a more intimate knowledge of the facility say the work is long past due.
"That (terminal) building out there has worn out," Aviation Board member and private pilot Dr. Frank Middleton said. "I would hope the people of our region would be thrilled to see progress being made at the airport. I think it will be a significant economic development boost for our region, and it's going to be a boost for both commercial and general aviation.
"The construction alone is having a positive economic impact on our community, and I believe when corporate executives fly into the new terminal, it's going to get their attention."
Fellow board member Bob Langstaff, who also serves on the Albany City Commission, said he's seen evidence first-hand that proves the terminal upgrade has long been overdue.
"Citizens need to understand that this is not just cosmetic," Langstaff said. "It's functional. Certainly the new design will be aesthetically pleasing, but there are a number of reasons we owe a lot to Yvette for getting Albany on the FAA's radar for this project.
"If we didn't get this funding now, it might be another 30 years before it became available. And (the current terminal) has a second floor that's unusable, so all of that square footage is pretty much wasted space. Plus, a terminal that was built in 1958 was not built with Homeland Security in mind. At the airport now, once people go through security, they can't even go to the restroom without going back through security twice. In which case they might not have time to go to the restroom at all."
When Aehle came to Albany after serving five years as deputy director of administration and finance at the McAllen (Texas) Airport, there was no talk of major improvements at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport.
"I think for me and for the airport (officials), it was a matter of seeing what happened, more about seeing how I fit in," said Aehle, who lived in Albany as a child and attended high school here for a year before moving with her family. "About three or four years into my tenure, we started talking about making improvements."
The city of Albany receives $1 million in airport "entitlements" -- "I hate to use that word given its current connotation, but that's what it's called," Aehle said -- each year. All other money comes from federal discretionary funds and are divided up by regional FAA offices based on a scoring system. Albany's needs, outlined in a required capital improvement plan that is updated yearly, are measured against the state's other 103 airports.
"We get our projects on the radar through our capital improvement plan, but if our rating score -- which is based on safety, security and capacity -- isn't high enough, we have to wait until our projects make their way up the list," Aehle explained. "The FAA won't tell you where your project stands, so you just basically wait for everyone else that's ahead of you."
In 2004, Aehle started lobbying for and she eventually helped secure funding for improvements on the airport's airfield. New pavement was approved for taxiways alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, hotel and foxtrot; and because the airport was negotiating a long-term business relationship with UPS, it was granted additional funds to widen and strengthen alpha so that the company could land its Airbus A-300s at the airport.
Aehle also went to Dougherty County leaders Richard Crowdis and Jeff Sinyard looking to get special-purpose local-option sales tax funding to build a $1.2 million warehouse/office facility for the delivery service company. The SPLOST funds, championed by the county leaders and approved by voters, were also used to build ramps necessary to separate airline and cargo traffic, and $1.5 million in city funding and FAA grants were utilized to build a fire station at the airport.
"Once we had the airfield improvements in place, the time was right to start looking at a new terminal," Aehle said. "I started talking to the Aviation and City commissions about my plans, and there were really no objections from either board. No one disagreed."
Aehle petitioned the FAA for funds to build a new terminal, pointing out the deteriorating condition of the current terminal, an antiquated and inadequate HVAC system, the lack of restrooms in the secured area of the terminal, the wasted space on the second floor of the building, the increasing amount of space taken up by Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration, and an electrical system that does not have the capacity to handle latest-generation equipment.
FAA officials were not convinced.
"They were skeptical, but I knew they hadn't been down here in years," Aehle said. "So I invited them to come for a visit. They don't get out of their offices very often, so I guess that's one of the reasons they agreed to come down and see the terminal."
Once FAA officials saw the condition of the Albany facility, they told Aehle, "We get what you're saying."
Unfortunately for Aehle and Southwest Georgia Regional Airport officials, the FAA rarely allocated funding for terminal buildings. But under President Obama's stimulus plan, such facilities came into play.
"I was on vacation, and I got a call from Aimee," Aehle said. "She said, 'How would you like to build a terminal?'"
To qualify for stimulus money, facilities needed to be "shovel-ready," and before a shovel of dirt could be turned to ready the Albany airport for construction, a number of environmental and location studies had to be completed. Airport officials worked feverishly with engineering consultant LPA of Columbia, S.C., but they were not able to meet a tight deadline.
That's when McCormick's and the FAA's cheerleading became so vital.
"The people at the Atlanta office really went to bat for us in Washington," Aehle said. "By 2010, we'd finished our studies, and the folks at the FAA asked on our behalf for any conditional grants that might be available. Finally, some of the money came funneling down.
"I later found out our score was 37 (on a scale of 100), so there's no way we would have gotten funding without the FAA folks working on our behalf."
McCormick called to say that a $6.6 million grant was available if the Aviation and City commissions were on board, and Aehle immediately assured her the bodies were.
"I'd gotten no opposition from either board, and I knew that because this funding was conditional, we would have to accept money as it came available," Aehle said. "As I expected, everybody went along."
Construction started on March 19 of this year, and airport Deputy Director Ken Johnson says the project is on schedule for its planned late-June 2013 finish. LPA has overseen the engineering portion of the project, while Walbridge-Aldinger, a worldwide construction firm with an office in Tampa, Fla., is building the structure.
"We're fortunate to have a board that's very informed, very forward thinking," said Johnson, who worked at the Tampa airport for 19 years before coming to Albany two years ago to gain valuable construction experience. "It's a huge deal for me to be a part of taking a $10 million project from paper to reality, and I know first-hand it's a huge deal for this airport to bring this kind of facility to the region."
Once the terminal is completed and the Phase 3 parking project is done, Aehle, Johnson and airport officials have no intention of sitting back and basking in the afterglow.
"It would have been great if T-SPLOST had passed; we had some projects we were looking to fund, especially upgrading the old hangars," Aehle said. "Transportation's not spending a lot of money on things like that, but we plan to get in line. And we want to extend our runways eventually, maybe get Runway 442 up to the magic 8,000 feet.
"There's a lot going on getting this terminal built and finishing up this entire project. But we're updating our capital improvement plan right now. We're always looking to the future."