Almost 40 people representing a dozen Gwinnett County neighborhoods, two citizens' groups and a local political organization met May 19 at the Apalachee Farms clubhouse in Dacula to discuss a pressing concern for area residents – the potential commercialization of Briscoe Field.
Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinett County Board of Commissioners and a Dacula native, was also in attendance to provide additional insight into the increasingly contentious issue.
Last month, hundreds of residents gathered at 12Stone church to provide input at the behest of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners regarding a resolution proposed by District 4 Commissioner John Heard that would have removed commercial service from consideration at the Lawrenceville airport.
Despite public support for the resolution, District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau proposed a substitute motion the following week to direct staff to issue a request for proposals (RFPs) for privatization, which could include commercialization. The motion passed by a 3-2 margin with Heard and Nash voting against the measure.
Though Nash opposed the measure, she told those in attendance Thursday night that she is not ready to rule out privatizing Briscoe.
“There’s the privatization issue, then there’s the idea of whether we would put commercial flights there,” Nash said. “As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on whether it makes sense to privatize it as a general aviation airport. There may actually be some opportunities there as long as we can keep control of what happens to the airport.”
However, when it comes to commercialization, Nash sees the issue as more clear-cut. Citing the small size of the airport, its location partially within the city limits of Lawrenceville and substantial development costs, Nash said she does not believe the airport is a suitable candidate for commercial service.
“We’ve got a constrained piece of property in terms of the size. It would take some pretty massive development costs and infrastructure improvements,” she said. “We’ve got 502 acres. I believe that is too small of a site on which to try to do commercial service and not have appropriate buffers for the folks that are most directly surrounding the airport."
A study released earlier this week found Lawrenceville’s Briscoe Field is not currently a feasible site for a second commercial service airport in the metro Atlanta area. The news was welcomed by those in attendance at Thursday night’s meeting who believe the study findings apply not only to the use of Briscoe as a relief airport for Hartsfield, but also as the .
While the study addresses some important issues, Nash said there are even more critical considerations related to the potential privatization or commercialization of Briscoe Field -- particularly the financial commitment required as a condition of participation in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) privatization program.
“There’s an absolute requirement that the county agree as part of that pre-application process that should the private operator that’s pulled in for the privatization process have difficulty keeping the airport operating -- they go bankrupt or get in financial trouble -- the county has to agree that they’re going to take over the responsibility for operating the airport,” she said.
To protect itself against that risk, the county could require the airport operator to post a performance or surety bond, but Nash is concerned even that may not completely mitigate the potential risks to the taxpayers.
“I suspect it would be very difficult for a private operator to get as good of a third party surety as we would need if we’re going to protect the county from potential financial problems on the part of the private operator,” she said. “No matter where you live in relationship to the airport, I think that’s something we have to be concerned about.”
Also in attendance Thursday night were Founding Fathers Tea Party chairman Steve Ramey, Citizens for a Better Gwinnett board member Jim Regan and Gwinnett Citizens for a Responsible Government chairwoman Sabrina Smith. All three expressed opposition to the commercialization of Briscoe Field.
Smith compared the current situation with the Lawrenceville airport to the battle over the trash plan and the Gwinnett Braves stadium.
“This is much bigger,” she said. “Every taxpayer in Gwinnett County, no matter how far away they are from the airport, will be on the hook.”
Nash emphasized the privatization process is a long and arduous one, but cautioned those in attendance not to assume the process will fail.
“The time is now to take commercialization off the table,” she said. “The more I dig into it, the more I see it as not just an issue for those closest to the airport.”