Walking through the quaint brick downtown of Anniston, Alabama, one could be excused for slipping back into another era of Main Street, USA. A small city with a daytime population just over 37,000, Anniston almost seems poised for larger things. Just as modern structures tower over the turn of the century brick, the Anniston Airport lies waiting in the wings as well.
“Honestly, we’re dealing with a huge airport infrastructure that’s treated as a general aviation airport,” reports David Arnett, Public Works Director/Airport Manager. “We have over 600 acres of land left to develop and I would like to get the fullest use out of our 139 certification as possible. And whatever it takes to get there is what we want to do. There is just so much potential there.”
A Part 139 Airport certification allows for use by larger seat capacity air carriers. Anniston Airport has what it takes to bring in larger commercial flights. Conveniently located near Interstate 20, highways 431, 21, and 78, the Anniston Regional Airport is just 80 miles north of Montgomery, 55 miles east of Birmingham, and 80 miles west of Atlanta, Georgia. With an asphalt runway 7,002 feet by 150 feet and over 500,000 square feet of paved apron and seal–coated tile ramp, this facility accommodates dual wheel aircraft up to 500,000 pounds.
Toby Bennington, City of Anniston Director of Economic Development & City Planning, shares, “Anniston is the county seat for Calhoun County and the center for banking and the hospital and other activities. But there is an elevated level, a higher sense of purpose for the airport that relates to a broader regional economic development. Having a general aviation airport is a catalyst for building your marketing tool for business and industry. For example, it serves as an airport that provides a lot of freight delivery for Honda and other industries in the area. That is a great marketing tool when you’re talking to industrial prospects and you’re focused on the airport as an asset: what that service could be to either an existing industry that wants to expand or a new industry that is looking at the area; and the proximity and the easy access to the airport of what that freight shipment and delivery can provide to all industries in the area.”
There are also businesses and industries located to the south of Anniston, particularly in the rural counties and in Ashland, Alabama and Talladega. Anniston Regional serves the same purpose for them – a GA airport in close proximity that they can utilize for freight purposes. Many of these companies are tied to head offices and industry offices from out of state. Whether it be in the Midwest, the north, or out west, it provides an opportunity for their business associates and clients, marketing departments, other connections in the industries to fly their corporate jets in and out of Anniston Regional Airport, as opposed to going to Atlanta or Birmingham. Bennington notes, “Having that access is key because a lot of industries have their corporate teams utilizing their company aircraft. With the pandemic, a lot of that is not being practiced – although, there is a lot of charter activity – but that is something that will come back into play as we move away from COVID–19.”
The other aspect of the airport being a catalyst for economic development is the ability to have a quick turnaround in terms of commercial development – site locators, tenant reps – people who might be considering a site for a national chain grocery store or a series of restaurants, and other sundry type stores. According to Bennington, “It’s another means of convenience. Time saving is very important in marketing of economic development sites. There are times when a tenant rep or a leasing agent are looking at five or six cities in the course of a day or two. Using our airport means they don’t have to fly into Atlanta or Birmingham and then drive in a rental car or be chauffer driven to Anniston to look at sites. It’s about time saving and that’s critical. It’s a strong facet in the marketing of properties and the region, when you have people coming from all parts of the country looking at sites.”
Having a runway length of 7002 feet allows access to converted 727s and other large aircraft that are utilized to haul freight. And the location right off the interstate provides a convenience factor, if there’s going to be a fly–in for a manufacturing plant or another industry along the interstate corridor.Just the regional geographic location is an extremely valuable tool that Anniston Regional offers to marketing for economic development.
The entire region is steadily growing, which is another reason the airport has so much potential. “Calhoun County is a destination for eco–tourism,” says Arnett, “and we have some of the best bike trails in the world. When COVID hit and people stopped coming, it was noticeable. Before the pandemic, we had people flying in to experience our trails. We are also right next to the Talladega International Raceway, so we get race traffic. Jacksonville State University football team flies in and out of our airport, and then there is the military traffic out of Anniston Army Depot. The Regional Medical Centre also flies medical flights from the airport, as it is the medical hub of the county but before the pandemic, race traffic and military traffic were our two biggest users. We also have about 19 single–engine planes, 5 multiengine and 2 jets that call this place home.”
The military has played a role in Anniston since 1917, when the federal government purchased 18,952 acres adjoining Anniston for the development of Camp McClellan. Renamed Fort McClellan in 1929, it was used as an Army training center until being closed in 1999. The Anniston Ordnance Depot, Anniston’s largest employer in the 1980s, continues to be the Army maintenance facility for most of its tracked vehicles.
“We have five employees at the airport and an FBO, Anniston Aviation, who handle the day–to–day operations,” Arnett explains, “They have the military fuel contract and also manage the fuel farm. There is a pilots lounge and they have internet there. They also have hangar and ramp space available. We have an airport development plan, and when our grants are approved we hope to be doing a $4,000,000 resurfacing of our runway. We have also been working on smaller infrastructure improvements and drainage work for part of our land.”
Once COVID is over, Arnett believes “people will come back to flying. We want to start taking an aggressive partnership with our FBO and ask some tough questions about what we need to do to grow this airport into what it already has the capacity to be. I think of it as a diamond in the rough just waiting, I think we have something special here. So I guess our wish list starts with growing service. We want to get out there and see if we cannot convince some of those commuter services to utilize the airport on a daily basis. Basically, I want to up our enplanements.
“Then we have to work at bringing the community on board, as well as the city. We need to start thinking about the importance of this airport economically, but also as a driver of tourism and perhaps even a destination, itself, where people want to come. Right now we have been doing our best with what he have. But if we just got the buy–in and investment, we would be on our way to sharing what we have to offer here in Anniston to even more people.”