NEA regional airport could aid surrounding states

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,110 views 

State Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, once served as the mayor of Elkins, a small town in Northwest Arkansas. While he was there, the small airport in the town grew from four gates to 16 gates. The increase in airport traffic helped to fuel the local economy.

He thinks it might be time for a regional airport that has commercial service somewhere in Northeast Arkansas he told Talk Business & Politics.

“I feel like NEA has grown to the point that we could support something like that here,” he said.

Early last year, he wrote a letter to the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics requesting a study be conducted on the viability of a commercial airport in the region. He was able to get 12 state representatives and seven senators from a 19-county region in NEA and a few surrounding counties to support the initiative.

ADA and the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to conduct the study and it’s underway. The engineering firm, Garver, which specializes in airport projects, has been hired to conduct the nearly $400,000 study.

The area under consideration stretches from the Missouri/Arkansas border to the north and the Mississippi River to the east. Stone County is the furthest western point, while St. Francis County is the most southern.

Residents who wish to fly in the region currently have to drive to Little Rock or Memphis which can add hours to trips.

The East Arkansas Planning & Development District is conducting the survey of residents in the target region. Surveys will be collected through May 5, EAPDD Director of Economic and Community Development Jeff Morris told Talk Business & Politics. About 3,500 surveys have already been collected but more are needed, he said.

You can complete a survey or submit comments at this link or at this link.

Once all the surveys are collected, they will be processed and the information will be generated into a report, Garver senior aviation planner John Rostas said. The report will detail the needs for an airport in the area and how feasible it would be to build one.

Socio-economic factors, key industry needs, an analysis of general air service demand and other factors will be studied during this initial phase. The region is slated for stagnant population and wage growth through 2043, according to some research that has already been done.

“The metrics only tell part of the story. They don’t tell the whole story,” Rostas said.

Ladyman said he spent a lot of time talking with other elected and business leaders including Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp. An obvious question is whether it would be more feasible to upgrade and existing airport in the region or build one.

The cost estimates range from $250-$500 million for a project like this, according to Garver. Location will be another hurdle, Ladyman said.

Several communities in the region, including its two largest cities, Jonesboro and Paragould, have airports. But both are landlocked to a degree and would need major runway improvements to handle commercial traffic.

The Walnut Ridge Airport, however, already has three runways that could be used. It was originally built in 1942 as a pilot training center for World War II. After the war, the runways were deeded to the city of Walnut Ridge. It reportedly has the second most runway square footage of any airport in the state.

Ladyman said Walnut Ridge seems like the most logical choice at this point based on how many runways are already there and there is ample land surrounding the airport, located near Williams Baptist University, that could be available. But elected officials will work on a location once the study is done and possible funding for the project is identified, he added.

To get this project off the ground, Ladyman has contemplated bringing surrounding states into the fold. Southern Missouri, Southeast Kentucky and even parts of Northern Mississippi and Western Tennessee might draw commercial traffic. Ladyman said he’s reached out to legislators in other states and is willing to start a dialogue about the project.

No matter where it’s located, a regional airport would be an economic boon to all of Northeast Arkansas.

“We are sending a lot of tax dollars across the river (Mississippi River). We could be bringing those dollars in,” he said. “We don’t want to miss an opportunity. I want to build the economy.”