The city’s municipal airport observed its 50th anniversary earlier this year, a milestone of a half-century of service and growth, and the decisions they make now could very well determine whether the airport will still be around for its 60th anniversary.
Developed before U.S. 280 passed through Talladega County to its western terminus in Birmingham, the airport was built on the mostly quiet western side of town.
Over the years, the development along the highway has increased, making land in the area more desirable for commercial and industrial development.
The Sylacauga Utilities Board also has an interest in the outcome, with the potential for increasing its revenue if the land were occupied by entities that used more energy than the airport.
The airport does take up a good bit of land. Its mile-long runway and federally mandated safety zones place limits on development around the field.
Some argue that the airport is little more than a playground for those wealthy enough to own airplanes, and that industrial and commercial uses of the land would be more profitable for the city.
The fact of the matter is that if the airport were being planned and built today, a site in a different location would likely be chosen, but moving the airport isn’t a realistic option.
An Airport Layout Plan submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration included land thought to be owned by the city, but they now realize that part of the land in that plan includes land deeded over to the IDB by a previous council in 1996. The IDB has a spec building alongside the airport’s taxiway that still has no occupant after seven years on the market.
The FAA has offered to purchase the land at fair market value to resolve the problem and continue with development of the airport, but the IDB refuses to sell the land.
That refusal could mean the end of future FAA grants for the airport, which are critical to its future.
General aviation airports — those without scheduled flights — are not typically profitable operations, but are regarded as important parts of the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
Merkel Field averages some 60-70 takeoffs and landings per day, and is the site of some 400 military aircraft operations per year.
Corporate jets make regular use of the airport, and it is now an operational base for LifeSaver medical helicopters with a service radius including Birmingham, Atlanta, Huntsville, Mobile and points in between, and whose 19 employees represent a seven-figure payroll.
The city’s leaders are tasked with sorting out the reasons previous councils made the land transfers and what they think will be in the city’s best interests in the long term.
General aviation airports are an important part of the nation’s transportation system and serve a variety of needs locally. Finding the proper balance between the airport’s needs with the IDB’s needs is not an easy task, but their needs are not mutually exclusive.
Both are vitally important.