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Flights of fancy: will a $140 million airport run through Benton County?

A SCALED-DOWN VERSION of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport proposal continues to warm up on the bureaucratic taxiway, and advocates hope the $140 million project will gain flight approval in the coming months.

The Federal Aviation Administration will soon select a consultant to help prepare the environmental impact statement (EIS). The time frame for completing this all-important document varies.

The EIS for the new Denver airport took about 10 months to complete while another for a new runway at Dallas-Fort Worth International is in its sixth year and still running.

"We think that a year is a reasonable time to complete an EIS," says Scott Van Laningham, spokesman for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority.

The study will scrutinize two sites that were chosen during a selection process encompassing 19 locations.

The preferred location is the Centerton 2 site, which lies between the communities of Vaughn and Healing Springs and is entirely in Benton County. The other site is dubbed Robinson 1. It is just to the southwest of Centerton 2 and outside the Highfill community. A tiny portion of this site is in Washington County.

The presence or absence of Ozark cave fish could have material bearing on the airport proposal. The blind, guppy-size fish is a threatened species.

Like the Ozark cave fish, organized opposition to the airport is hard to find and apparently getting more difficult as the review process continues.

Chris Kirby, spokesman for the Partnership For Sustainable Growth group that voiced opposition to the regional plan, is gone. Reports have him in Austin, Texas, working in alternative dispute resolution -- a vehicle for settling disagreements outside a court of law.

Kirby's move came after a 74 percent to 26 percent vote by citizens in Benton and Washington counties to stay in the airport authority. His decision to go to Texas is not surprising because the Fayetteville lawyer observed last year that he could always move away from northwest Arkansas if the airport proposal moved forward.

If all went expeditiously, the FAA could issue a "record of decision" by August 1994 and provide grant funding to acquire land, with initial dirt work beginning in the fall. Last year, airport boosters optimistically pointed to 1994 as the year when commercial jets would begin landing.

In any case, the project would take two years of construction before passenger service could actually begin.

Developments at Drake

Meanwhile, Drake Field in Fayetteville is completing a $2.7 million land acquisition project to improve flight operations. The expansion will help negate the impact of inclement weather on landings and takeoffs.

"Drake is moving ahead and making improvements, both safetywise and runwaywise," says Fayetteville Alderman Fred Vorsanger. "I don't see any change in activity at Drake Field except that it will continue to be busier."

A minor controversy arose when a special joint committee examined the idea of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority leasing Drake Field, which now provides passenger service for the area.

"That was premature and started raising a lot of questions," Vorsanger says.

The committee, which included three representatives each from the NARA and the city of Fayetteville, was organized in early 1993 and disbanded in June.

Although the new airport proposal is touted as a Benton-Washington County venture, Fayetteville isn't keen about giving up control of its airport. Drake Field supporters say the regional airport proposal will have to fly on its own merits.
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Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 2, 1993
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