Source: Memphis Daily News.com | Roger Harris | The Ledger | April 25, 2015
For years, area business leaders and aviation enthusiasts have advocated the need for a general aviation airport in Oak Ridge to complement commercial air service provided by McGhee Tyson Airport, the largest commercial airport in East Tennessee.
The landing of the first corporate jet in Oak Ridge is still years away, but the long-sought airport is moving closer to reality.
“There is a real need for an Oak Ridge airport,” says Becky Huckaby, vice president of public relations for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority.
“It will help reindustrialize the area, help with parts delivery. Just like the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Oak Ridge needs a general aviation airport.”
The Airport Authority three years ago picked a site in the Heritage Center in the East Tennessee Technology Park as the preferred location for the proposed airport that would serve corporate users as well as private pilots.
Two other nearby sites were considered, but the Heritage Center was considered the most complementary to the ongoing revitalization efforts in the technology park and its “easy roadway access that will make it attractive to businesses as well as private pilots,” according to the Airport Authority website.
Heritage Center is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and was the former location of the K-25 uranium enrichment plant that was part of Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs during World War II.
The proposed airport would sit on 170 acres parallel to Highway 58.
“DOE received a formal request from MKAA for transfer of this property in June 2013, and DOE agreed to evaluate the request,” says Michael Koentop, Executive Officer of DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management.
“We are currently conducting a review under the National Environmental Policy Act as a part of our evaluation.”
The final environmental assessment is expected to be completed by the end of the third quarter this year.
Barring any environmental issues, the property could then be turned over to the Airport Authority.
Strong interest in a development of an Oak Ridge airport dovetails with DOE’s interest in converting land it owns into industrial parks and commercial uses.
“As for the benefits to DOE, one of the primary goals of our program is to fully convert the (East Tennessee Technology Park) site into a privately-owned industrial park, so any project that supports that mission is of benefit to our program,” Koentop explains.
DOE has transferred more than 700 acres to the private sector since launching its reindustrialization program in 1996.
Construction of the proposed airport could start as early as 2017 with the first flights in 2021, according to a timeline proposed by The LPA Group Inc., a Columbia, S.C., consulting company that provides engineering, planning and other services for airports and other clients.
The airport would have a 5,000-foot runway, although the design could change depending on input from interested parties, according to a feasibility study LPA.
The cost would be in the $40 million range and would be covered largely by federal funding.
Initially the Airport Authority opposed building an Oak Ridge airport, but changed its mind when it became clear that the land would be donated by DOE.
Buying land is typically one of the biggest expenses for new airports.
Advocates of the Oak Ridge airport say the facility would be an economic driver for the area, boosting existing businesses and attracting new ones to invest in the region.
“We believe that the Oak Ridge airport will not compete with McGhee Tyson and will not be to its determent,” says Mike Edwards, Knoxville Chamber President.
“But it will allow business flights to get to and from Oak Ridge, and especially ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Y-12 National Security Complex and their contractors with ease.”
The airport would make the technology park attractive to companies that do business with ORNL, says Jeff Smith, deputy director of operations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The recent announcement by high-tech metal powder processing firm CVMR “to move its international headquarters and 600 jobs to the industrial park is a good example of a high tech companies that we believe will partner with ORNL and help diversify the Oak Ridge economy,” adds Smith.
A LPA Group survey found that at least 16 existing companies would use the proposed airport for business purposes.
“Apart from this immediate benefit, the greatest economic potential of the proposed airport lies in the ability to leverage four distinct opportunities for job creation,” according to the LPA report.
These job creation opportunities include various government and private projects that are in varying stages of development.
They include the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex; the DOE-supported project to development carbon fiber manufacturing led by ORNL; and development of industrial isotopes, a product that depends on rapid transportation services.
As for private aviation, a survey of pilots in the Oak Ridge area found strong interest in the proposed airport among aircraft owners.
More than 60 percent of the owners surveyed said they could consider basing their planes at an Oak Ridge airport.
The Airport Authority’s Huckaby notes that there are now more than 100 pilots on the waiting list to hangar their planes at Downtown Island Airport, currently the only general aviation airport in the Knoxville area.
Many of those on the waiting list live in West Knox County and would have a much shorter drive to an Oak Ridge airport, she says.