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Why Lee Gilmer runway will be closed for 3 weeks this spring
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Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport is about to embark on some major improvements in April, including renovations to the World War II-era terminal. The work will involve a three-week closure of the airport’s primary runway. - photo by Scott Rogers

Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville is about to get a $2.4 million boost, including a renovation of the World War II-era terminal building.

The bulk of the work is set to begin April 15 and will involve a 60-day resurfacing of the main runway and replacing old runway lights with easier-to-maintain LED lighting.

At $1.9 million, the project “will have a pretty significant impact on our users,” as it will call for closing the 5,500-foot runway for three weeks, Airport Manager Lisa Poole said.

She couldn’t pinpoint just when the runway would close.

During that time, aircraft will be able to use the secondary 4,001-foot runway, except for three days when both will be closed, Poole said.

“We’re excited about the (improvements),” said Tom Hensley, president of Baldwin Fieldale Farms Corp., which opened a new 12,000-square-foot hangar at the airport last year.

The main runway “has some cracks in it, and it’s been about 15 years since they repaved it,” he said. “We’ll have to go to (Barrow County Airport in) Winder while it’s being done, because we use our planes all the time. Or we may go to Gwinnett County.”

Many of Lee Gilmer’s users are private pilots, but a large number are executives from local companies.

“We are fortunate to have a secondary runway at Lee Gilmer Airport,” said Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development. “At 4,000 feet, the secondary runway is quite capable. I would not expect the interruption to be anything other than a short-term inconvenience.”

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

The red brick building, with its art deco interior, hasn’t changed much from when it was operated by the Navy as a training base for World War II pilots.

The plan is to put down carpet, enlarge the pilot’s lounge, install a new roof and add handicapped-accessible bathrooms.

“The intent of the project is to not significantly alter the original design … but to enhance and renovate the existing building to meet (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards,” said Angie Kennedy, marketing director for Carroll Daniel Construction, the project’s contractor.

“We will keep the original windows and brickwork intact,” she said. “The appearance and historical integrity of the original design will be respected throughout the project.”

Jessica Tullar, the city’s special projects manager, said in an earlier interview that the terminal “hasn’t really had much TLC or updates to improve its efficiencies or functions.”

The building serves much like a “front door” to Gainesville-Hall County, she said. “It’s very important that it’s a good first impression,” she said.

Evans agreed.

“The terminal improvements … will greatly improve the first impressions for businesses and executives arriving (in the area),” he said.

The city-owned airport has made several upgrades in recent years, including accepting larger aircraft.

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 believed would spur new job growth, commercial development and an expanding tax base.

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,” Poole has said.

She 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.