Note: This story was updated at 4:36 p.m.
Conditions are subject to change, but current plans call for starting construction on a general aviation airport at Heritage Center, the former K-25 site, in 2018. The current estimate range says the airport could cost between $30 million and $40 million, officials said Wednesday.
Work on an airport master plan is just starting, and it could take 12 months to complete, said Bill Marrison, president of the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority. He said that plan will provide more details on subjects like cost and schedule.
The Oak Ridge airport would the third for the MKAA, which would own the site. The other two are McGhee Tyson in Blount County and Downtown Island in Knoxville.
Marrison said the Oak Ridge airport would be a reliever airport and help relieve congestion at the other two airports. He said McGhee Tyson is at capacity and there is no hangar space available, and Downtown Island has 100 people on its waiting list.
The U.S. Department of Energy is evaluating the potential transfer of 170 acres at Heritage Center for the airport. There will be additional evaluation by the MKAA, but right now, it looks like the impacts of transferring the land should be minimal, said Sue Cange, manager of DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management.
DOE and MKAA officials had a public information session on the proposed property transfer at the DOE Information Center in east Oak Ridge on Wednesday. The public comment period ends September 3.
An environmental assessment for the property transfer could be complete in November or December, and the decision on whether to proceed depends upon the assessment.
Cange said DOE is supporting the request to transfer the land, and MKAA is evaluating the impacts.
“This is just the first step in a fairly lengthy process,” she said.
Marrison said many airports around the country are near industrial parks.
“It definitely helps with industrial recruitment,” he said.
MKAA spokesperson Becky Huckaby said the airport could be funded with a mix of federal funding, state aeronautical commission funding, and local funding from the Airport Authority.
Jeff Smith, who is chair of the MKAA general aviation subcommittee, said the airport will complement the other transportation options already in place—a nearby interstate, rail line, and river—and make Heritage Center more desirable. That federal site was built during World War II to help enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, but it is slowly being converted into a large industrial park.
“The primary motivation of this airport is to improve the attractiveness of this industrial park,” said Smith, who is also deputy director for operations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Adding a general aviation airport basically completes the transportation options that we use today.”
It might not “make or break” companies’ decisions to locate in Oak Ridge, but it would make the community more attractive, Smith said.
And with the federal presence in Oak Ridge changing and possibly declining, the city needs to set itself apart to bring private sector jobs, Smith said.
Cange said there were a lot of good questions on Wednesday. About 60 people attended. Some wanted to ensure the former Wheat community is preserved, some were concerned about potential noise, and others were supportive.
Anything that helps the community, said Bob Pryor, an Oak Ridge resident and dentist.
A few people, including members of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association, said they want to ensure the history of the former Wheat community is preserved. That farming community of about 1,000 people, which was located where part of west Oak Ridge is now, had a elementary and high school and Roane College. It still has the George Jones Memorial Baptist Church near the intersection of State Route 58 and SR 95.
Steve Goodpasture, an environmental compliance officer at K-25, said the east end of the proposed runway would be right where the school once was. Goodpasture works with the Wheat Alumni Association and Bonita Irwin, who was born and raised in Wheat and graduated from the high school in 1940, before the federal government built what is now Oak Ridge as part of the Manhattan Project.
See previous story on the proposed property transfer here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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