Thomson/McDuffie County: The Landing Site Of Choice
Thomson is a small town many Georgians know only as the last stop on Interstate 20 before Augusta. But it's also a destination for corporate executives and wealthy travelers from around the country.
The reason is that Thomson happens to have a top notch landing site for corporate planes. Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport has a plush new terminal, a 5,200 foot runway - soon to be expanded to 5,500 feet - and a state-of-the art instrument landing system.
The much talked about instrument landing system is a federally funded boon to the airport which allows planes to land in bad weather. It drew praise on a gray, foggy, rainy afternoon from Phil Eberly, an engineer with the firm W.K. Dickson. "Without the ILS, you could not land on a day like today," Eberly says. "The system lines you up - horizontally and vertically - with the runway."
On that rainy day, the Clarks Hill Partnership - a cooperative group of five county governments in the region, all of which use the airport as a marketing point - went on record in support of planned airport improvements, including the runway extension, asphalt overlays to support larger aircraft and new corporate hangars. The total value of the new investment will be nearly $4 million, with the lion's share to come from the Federal Aviation Authority. The Thomson and McDuffie County governments will split the tab for the rest, as they have with other airport expenses.
The new terminal includes a spacious meeting room and even sleeping quarters for crew members. The runway is already longer than that of a competing airport in Augusta, where traffic and congestion create more problems. All this makes Thomson the landing site of choice for corporate planes flying in passengers bound for the Augusta area. Local officials are hoping to grow that business into a year round enterprise.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that most of the Thomson airport's business is concentrated into one week a year, when Augusta National holds the Masters tournament. Everyone in Thomson seems to have a story about watching corporate jets land that week. One favorite is about the Hollywood movie studio corporate jet that was so large a man could walk under it without bending over. "Two people got off," recalls Charlie Newton, chairman of the McDuffie County Commission. "What a waste!"
With all the traffic generated by the Masters, one might think the airport would be a big profit center for the local governments that own it. One would be wrong.
"Three days out of the year, it's a huge profit center," says Thomson City Administrator Bob Flanders. "It's like Christmas to retailers."
The rest of the year, the city and county governments have to supplement the airport to pay the light bills. But they are confident the airport's growth will soon allow it to break even. And they figure it already pays for itself in prestige.
"Right now it costs us money," Newton says. "But it's our front door and it attracts the right kind of business. If we can get some of these improvements, it can stand alone."