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Lee Gilmer Airport plans are taking off with upgrades, fixes
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A window reflects construction on Fieldale Corp.’s new hangar at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, is nearly complete on Thursday, March. 22, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Improvements are staying on the radar at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.

The city-owned airport, which has made several upgrades in recent years, including accepting larger aircraft, has other projects on the horizon.

They include completion of a new corporate hangar, a potential for safety improvements and a planned modernization of the 1940s-era terminal.

Even a new pedestrian/bicycling trail connecting Gainesville’s Midtown Greenway to Hall County’s Highlands to Islands Trail at Palmour Drive could involve the airport’s outskirts.

The buzz of activity excites airport manager Lisa Poole, who started the job in December.

“For it to be a city job, it’s not like anything else in the city,” she said.

One of the first projects coming to fruition is Fieldale Corp.’s new hangar at the entrance to Lee Gilmer. The company’s president, Tom Hensley, said last week he expects the hangar to be finished in 45 days.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

The 12,000-square-foot structure will be able to accommodate Fieldale’s new plane, a Falcon 2000, which can seat 10 people.

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A plane taxis down the runway Friday, March 23, 2018 at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville. The city-owned airport has plans for a modernization of the 1940s-era terminal as well as other projects on the horizon. - photo by Scott Rogers
“We use it to fly customers in and out of Georgia,” Hensley said. “Very few of our customers are located in Georgia, and it’s a two-hour drive from the Atlanta airport.”

Said Poole: “This will be the largest hangar at the airport, and is a great example of the demand by corporate users for the high-quality facilities and convenient location of the airport.”

Gainesville officials also are looking at doing a runway safety improvement project — work that includes upgrading lighting from medium intensity to highest intensity and possibly LED.

“I’m hoping the project takes place this summer or fall at the latest,” Poole said.

Officials are particularly looking forward to a $500,000 renovation of the terminal building — work that includes federal money from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Jessica Tullar, the city’s special projects manager, said the building serves much like a “front door” to Gainesville-Hall County.

“It’s very important that it’s a good first impression,” she said.

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Lisa Poole has worked with the city of Gainesville since 2001, moving into the engineering department two years ago, and today is the new manager for Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport. - photo by Scott Rogers
Plus, the red brick terminal building, which dates to World War II, when it served as a training base for Navy pilots, “hasn’t really had much TLC or updates to improve its efficiencies or functions,” Tullar said.

For one thing, it’s not handicapped-accessible, so improvements would need to be made.

“Our goal, in renovations, to the fullest extent possible, is to preserve the historic integrity and character of the building while upgrading it,” she said.

Also planned is a restoration of the building’s tower “to make it an educational and recreational piece ... as a live interpretive venue, if you will, so that children and others can see how it worked during the war era,” Tullar said.

The tower has fallen out of commission since the Navy used it to train personnel in ground-controlled approach procedures.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to start the work this fall, at the latest,” Tullar said.

Related to the trails study, a meeting will be held in April among officials to talk about “putting together a list of stakeholders for interviews and some public engagement,” she said.

Among other things, a study could show how the trail might intertwine with intersections between the Gainesville and Hall trails, such as Palmour Drive at Aviation Boulevard and Georgia Avenue at Industrial Boulevard.

One of the 66-acre airport’s biggest projects in recent years had little to do with brick and mortar.

The airport raised the weight load of aircraft allowed to land on its runways in 2014, after Hall County and the city of Gainesville each chipped in $12,500 to fund a study on pavement strength.

The maximum weight is now set at 100,000 pounds for dual-axle planes, up from 40,000 pounds.

Thanks to that increase, planes four times larger than previously allowed can now land at the airport in Gainesville, a move local government officials and business leaders have said they believe would spur new job growth, commercial development and an expanding tax base.

Poole didn’t have numbers on the number of larger planes now flying into the airport. But anecdotally, she said the airport “is definitely handling large business-type airplanes, such as the Gulfstream 550 and the Dassault Falcon 900, that I’m told can reach the West Coast,” she said.

Poole also cited a city planning document approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation that says “our based aircraft of 129 is expected to grow to 174 over the next 20 years.”

“In addition, we expect a 35 percent increase of our aircraft yearly operations — takeoffs and landings — to also increase from 38,800 to 48,764,” she said.

Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said recent airport investments “have done a lot to allow for more corporate aircraft.”

“It’s a significant airport, and it’s directly connected with business that’s being done ... and to thousands of jobs in the community,” he said.

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