‘We want to be an economic engine’

The ribbon was cut Thursday on the new and improved taxiway at Cullman Regional Airport

Area leaders celebrated the opening of Cullman Regional Airport’s new and improved taxiway with a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon. (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

VINEMONT, Ala. – Thursday was a special day at the Cullman Regional Airport, with the airport celebrating the completion of its new and improved taxiway as well as the 60th anniversary of the facility itself.

Cullman Regional Airport General Manager Ben Harrison, a member of the National Air Transportation Association’s (NATA) Airport Business Committee and chair of that committee’s Airport Sponsored Fixed Base Operator (FBO) Subcommittee, got the ceremony started by reflecting on the rise of aviation not just here in Cullman, but all over the world.

“I just want to thank everyone for showing up. What a great day this is. I can’t believe we have so many faces here and I just wanted to talk about where we’ve been, where we are and where we want to go,” he said. “Two days ago, Dec. 17 of 1903, was the first powered flight from the Wright Brothers. So, 116 years later, look at what it’s become. Look at what aviation as a whole has become.”

Cullman Regional Airport was awarded a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant of $1,543,500 for taxiway reconstruction in June. The funding was awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The grant was one of 20 awarded throughout Alabama for airport infrastructure improvements totaling more than $25 million.

According to the office of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the FAA grants – which ranged from $10.4 million for the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to $100,200 for the Camden Municipal Airport – were funded through the Airport and Airway Trust Fund and federal appropriations. Shelby is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which authors and advances the FAA funding legislation. The funding distribution is based on both entitlement and discretionary awards.

Harrison went on to talk about the 60th anniversary of the airport and some of the people who helped build the airport into what it is today, as far back as its inception.

“In the mid-50s in this community there was a group of people that sat down and saw a need for an airport and I do believe that need came out of the ‘Flying 50.’ So, we had people, business owners and different delegations within our government, that would fly to different areas to try and do economic development in this community,” Harrison said. “I’m glad to say we still have one member of the Flying 50 here, and that’s Mr. Roy Drinkard. He’s with us today after all this time and I think it’s remarkable that to this day he’s still active in this community and still flying in our community.”

Harrison thanked all those who have contributed to the airport, past and present, breaking down all the necessary work that goes into maintaining a successful facility.

“It takes multiple people to make this airport work. It takes multiple government entities, multiple departments, multiple people who are helping pull all this together and move us forward. Not just in the past but going forward into the future as well,” Harrison said. “I know some of them don’t want to be recognized, but without the staff here every day in the heat, in the cold, keeping the equipment going, keeping the mowers going, keeping a safe runway, keeping a safe taxiway, making sure all the lights work for nighttime operations, we would not have an airport that is successful.”

Alabama Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman was next up to the podium and he touched on the teamwork that it took to complete this project and what that means for economic development in the community going forward.

“It’s really easy for me to get up here and say how great this place is, just look at it. I don’t give Ben (Harrison) much credit because I don’t want to because his head will swell too big,” Gudger joked. “But when you see something like this and all the different entities that come together, you see that we’re successful. It’s easy for us to be successful today because we’re standing on the shoulders of the giants that helped found this and start this. As economic development continues to prosper in this community, this airport will too.”

Cullman County Commission Chairman Kenneth Walker was happy to see a crowd attending the ceremony Thursday to support the airport and wants to see the facility continue to grow and have even more economic impact on the community.

“I’d like to say that I’m very surprised and very glad to see all the faces here today. As one of the board members here it makes me feel good and it goes to show you that working together will bring progress where progress belongs,” Walker said. “I just want to thank Ben (Harrison) for the hard work that he’s put into it. He came in with a plan and stuck with it and so far, we’ve done what the plan was and we hope to continue to build this airport. This airport brings jobs to this community and I think if you go around town you can see the industry we have here.”

Cullman Mayor Woody Jacobs was the final special guest to speak before cutting the ribbon. He said he is excited to see the economic impact of the airport grow as well. Jacobs is happy to work with several different partners in the community to help projects like this come to fruition.

“This used to be just kind of a small, city airport serving a little bit of industry and local pilots, but this airport can be much more than that, and thanks to our partners and everyone from the design team to the FAA and (Cullman Economic Development Agency Director) Dale (Greer) has joined us from the economic development team and this can be a huge economic engine,” Jacobs said. “We’re not going to be a big airport and we don’t want to be a big airport, but we want to be an economic engine and we want to get companies here and things of that nature. We appreciate everyone that works with us towards that goal.”

Next up for the airport will be runway improvements, the next phase in the facility’s five-year improvement plan. 

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Cullman Regional Airport General Manager Ben Harrison (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

Nick Griffin