Up in the air: Columbus Municipal Airport seeks funding for new control tower

First, it was wood.

Then, it was metal.

Now, the 65-year-old, 60-foot control tower that overlooks Columbus Municipal Airport could receive a new makeover if a funding request is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration later this year.

The airport staff applied for a $7.1 million supplemental grant in October to fund the project, which would involve designing and building a new control tower near the southeast side of the terminal.

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Getting the funding may not be as simple a task as it seems.

“Control towers, when it comes to priorities from the FAA standpoint, are fairly low on the list,” said Brian Payne, director of Columbus Municipal Airport. “We’re trying to figure out how to bump that need higher.”

A supplemental grant program, however, could be the best chance at getting full funding for a new tower.

President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act on March 23, 2018, which provided the FAA Airport Improvement Program an additional $1 billion in discretionary grants. The FAA gives priority considerations to non-primary airports classified as regional, local or basic and not located within a “metropolitan” or “micropolitan” statistical area. Priority is also given to primary airports classified as small or non-hub airports.

Columbus Municipal Airport falls under this consideration, but Payne said airport officials may not find out until as late as May whether Columbus receives a grant.

“When this came up, we thought this was perfect,” Payne said of the supplemental grant.

He and his team put together a packet of support letters from Indiana leaders including Gov. Eric Holcomb, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and local state representatives. Now, Payne said it’s a waiting game.

If funding for the new tower is approved, it would stand twice as high as the current tower, at 120-feet tall.

Payne said its height will improve visibility of all runways. Plus, if a runway is extended in the future, it will ensure that the tower can be seen.

Lienhoop said there’s both safety and economic needs for a new tower.

“We fear that over time it (the current tower) will be less relevant to heavy users of the airport,” Lienhoop said. “We fear that we may get to the point where some of the larger aircraft we rely on to create economic activity for us will be prevented from landing here because the tower will be deemed to be inadequate.”

“We’d like to get out in front of that concern now while we can,” the mayor said.

The Columbus AirPark already has several plans in place for new development this year. Payne and his team are currently designing a new fence to surround the airport. Bidding for contracts will take place this summer.

Payne said the airport is awaiting a grant from the FAA for the $3 million project, which could start in fall 2019 or spring 2020. The city would only be required to pay for 5 percent of the project. The FAA will pay 90 percent of the costs and the Indiana Department of Transportation will cover the remaining 5 percent.

The airport is also seeking to redevelop 60 acres of land on the eastern airport campus for an Aeroplex Commerce Center aimed at light industrial businesses. The AirPark currently has 84 businesses located on airport property with more than 2,000 employees.

Most recently, the Columbus AirPark installed new blue street signs signifying the district. As a part of the branding project, new monument signs will be installed at all AirPark entrances. Bus shelters throughout the district will also be rebranded.

“We’re trying to show that this place is different,” Payne said. “Making people want to come here, making businesses say, ‘Oh, they’ve got a lot of really good things going on out there,’ and then they can move or relocate their businesses here.”

It all adds up to one solution, Payne said: Bringing more people to Columbus AirPark.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Columbus Municipal Airport and its AirPark

2,750 acres of property owned and managed

No. 4 busiest towered airport in Indiana

48,065 total operations

20 airport-owned buildings

84 businesses located on airport property

More than 2,000 employees on airport property

$650 million impact to city of Columbus

— Source: Columbus Municipal Airport

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The original wooden control tower at the Columbus airport was built as a temporary structure in 1942, located on the Bakalar Air Force Base.

It was replaced in 1954 with the current metal tower that stands on the west side of the Columbus Municipal Airport terminal today. The U.S. government turned the property over to the city of Columbus to create its own municipal airport in 1970.

— Source: Columbus Municipal Airport