BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- State and local politicians, as well as congressional candidates, gathered at the Tri-Cities airport Tuesday for its first-ever ‘Legislative Day’ event.
“I thought it was a good opportunity and a good time to bring them in, give them an update on where the airports at, and what we’re doing and help them understand the challenges we face,” said Gene Cossey, the airport’s executive director.
Cossey told the crowd a major challenge is excessive regulation by the federal government that limits how the airport can use funds. He explained the inability to market to specific airlines in order to gain new services is one limitation on the airport’s economic development.
“I’ve got to run and operate this airport as if it’s a private business. But unlike private businesses around the country, I’ve got the federal government telling me how I can and can’t spend my money,” Cossey told legislators.
Recovering from the economic impact of COVID-19 is another hurdle for the Tri-Cities airport. Cossey estimates they’re flying about 300 passengers a day now – up from around 60 per day in May.
“In a world before COVID, if you told me I was going to be down to 45 percent of my passengers, I would be panicked,” Cossey said. “And now I’m actually excited and happy that we’re back up to that.”
The airport received a $10.3 million CARES Act grant to help cover revenue losses, which can be used for four years. Any remaining money can go towards capital projects.
“We’re going to try to use that only as needed,” said Cossey.
City and county mayors attended the event, as well as State Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Representative David Hawk (R-Greeneville).
Congressional candidates Blair Walsingham and Diana Harshbarger were also at Legislative Day and joined a bus tour of the nearly-completed Aerospace Park property near the airport.
The Aerospace Park development is funded by several local governments and is meant to be the future home of aeronautic-related businesses. Work so far has consisted of flattening the hilly terrain to build on.
“We figured there’s going to be 140-150 acres of land that could actually be built on with buildings, parking lots, ramps, and all that stuff,” said Cossey.
No companies have signed up to locate on the property yet – though Cossey said that’s normal for this phase of development. He said it’s too soon to tell how much revenue could be made once Aerospace Park is complete, but their main goal is for 1,500 to 2,000 people to work there once it’s finished.
“We’re already full-speed ahead on marketing and trying to attract businesses into the park,” he said.
News Channel 11 spoke with both congressional candidates after the tour. Democrat Blair Walsingham was impressed.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” she said. “And that we’ve definitely invested resources well in the Aerospace Park and the airport. There’s a great room for expansion, for job opportunity, and the economic booms. And also programs such as the National Flight Academy coming and opening up STEM programs out here to get kids invested.”
Walsingham said the aspect of the presentation that surprised her was when airport officials shared how government over-regulation stifles their economic growth.
Republican Diana Harshbarger praised Aerospace Park as well, and said government over-regulation of the airport also concerned her.
“We can look at legislation that prohibits different airlines from coming in and doing business at this airport,” said Harshbarger. “There’s several things, and that’s where I’m going to talk to the director to find out – what can I do once elected to help take that over-regulation away from the airline industry?”