Smyrna Airport Evolving
Once the site of an Army Air Force Combat Crew School, the 3,000-acre site was where troops learned to fly the B-24 and B-17 aircraft during World War II.
Many residents have ties to the base, including Smyrna Town Manager Harry Gill Jr. His father, Sgt. Maj. Harry Gill Sr., brought the family to town in 1958. The family lived on the base, and the son attended John Coleman School, now part of Rutherford County Schools.
"The base was really flourishing then with immense opportunities for families," Gill recalled. "It was the only C-130 (large cargo aircraft) base in the United States."
Today, Smyrna Airport is thriving and is key in spurring economic development in Rutherford County. Perhaps the biggest push comes in the form of a $102 million leasing commitment from Texas-based Hillwood Enterprises for four buildings in the Airport Business Park, officials say.
"Hillwood is the first industrial development in that 400-acre business park," said Mike Woods, chairman of the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority. "It costs a lot of money to operate an airport, especially one the size of Smyrna Airport. This will provide us a steady cash flow to be able to operate a nice facility for the community and county."
The project has been in the works for more than a decade and has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Although the base closed, the airport area has emerged as a hub for many employers, including produce supplier Taylor Farms, food service equipment manufacturer Franke, health and beauty supplier Vi-Jon, and the Tennessee National Guard.
The airport, which is 60 percent owned by the county and 40 percent owned by the town of Smyrna, established an initial $56 million lease for two warehouse buildings in 2016 with Hillwood Enterprises LLC, a company based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that's led by Chairman Ross Perot Jr.
Hillwood and the airport then reached an agreement on two more buildings in a $46 million lease with the support of the Rutherford County Commission.
All 20 present commissioners approved a lease agreement Thursday that authorizes the county Industrial Development Board (IDB) to issue up to $46 million in revenue notes to finance Hillwood's development of two more buildings for office and distribution operations.
"There is no taxpayer liability in this," Commissioner Will Jordan said in calling for the vote, which did not include an absent Commissioner Carol Cook.
John Black, executive director of the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority, shows off a plan that includes two completed buildings and two proposed buildings at the Airport Business Park. Black persuaded the Rutherford County Commission Budget, Finance & Investment Committee to recommend a $46 million lease agreement for Hillwood, a Dallas-Fort Worth area company led by Chairman Ross Perot Jr., to build two more buildings to go along with the first two completed buildings. (Photo: Submitted)
Leases help pay for airport operations
The new lease will initially generate $130,000 annually in rent starting in 2018. Each of the two 50-year lease agreements will generate $250,000 in rent revenues for a total of $500,000 from all four buildings, airport Executive Director John Black said.
"It all stays right here and is reinvested in the airport," said Black, noting the leases are on 140 acres of business park property and could potentially be extended for a total of 99 years.
Those revenues will blend with the $1.8 million in other airport leases, including with Contour Aviation, Hollingshead Aviation Services, Vanderbilt LifeFlight and Midsouth Aviation, Black said.
"It takes a lot to (operate) an airport this size," Black said.
Now at 1,700 acres, the Smyrna Airport site is the third largest in Tennessee. It ranks fourth in the state with 80,000 flight takeoffs and landing operations, trailing Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.
The airport serves many corporate customers, including State Farm, General Mills, Nissan, Bridgestone, Lowe's and Verizon, Black said. Members of the music industry fly in and out of Smyrna, as well. Flight operations include pilot training and cargo shipments.
"Clearly, the airport is a real gem for industrial development for Smyrna, Rutherford County and the state of Tennessee," said Gill, who's pleased that Hillwood Enterprises is developing buildings to entice other employers. "Any time an industrial distribution center locates here it brings jobs and potential revenues to the town, so that's exciting."
The Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority seeks a $46 million lease for Hillwood Enterprises LLC to build two more buildings in addition to two company has built at Airport Business Park. Scott Broden/DNJ
The aviation side of the leasing for hangars and offices sit on about 70 acres, Black said.
The airport also earns $50,000 annually in a public-private partnership from a 6-acre solar farm with 3,400 solar panels.
"It's part of our sustainability program to help the environment," said Black, who oversees a staff of 13 to maintain the airport and provide public safety.
Airport revenues also include federal grants used on capital projects. The airport has won about $30 million in federal aviation grants the past 25 years, Black said.
The airport is also well known for the Great Tennessee Air Show event held every other year, with military jet teams such as the Blue Angels. The event generates about $1 million for the local economy, Black said.
The airport area overall has more than 1,500 jobs and generates about a $71 million annual economic impact to the local economy, according to a study completed by Middle Tennessee State University economics professor Charlie Baum, who also serves on the county commission.
The town also has leases on airport land to operate Smyrna Golf Course and Lee Victory Park.
Hillwood's first completed building brings 170 jobs to airport
Hillwood's first completed building is now a warehouse for NFI, a logistics company that is using the space to serve Lowe's stores, Black said.
More: Trucking giant NFI leases 600,000 square foot Smyrna warehouse from Perot company
To entice NFI, the IDB approved a five-year $288,684 property tax break agreement with the company, which leases a 622,830-square-foot building at the airport. The company pledged to create 170 jobs that pay an average of $15 per hour.
NFI also is committed to a $7.2 million investment in personal property at the building, which includes equipment, said Brian Hercules, the senior vice president of economic development for the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.
Hillwood will soon be completing a second building at the Smyrna Airport Business Park, and construction on the next two buildings won't be far behind.
Airport will remain focused on aviation
Airport officials hope to expand economic development but are dedicated to aviation.
"We're kicking off our new airport master plan study, which is done every 10 years," Black said. "We'll be welcoming input from the community as we continue to grow."
The remaining sites in the Airport Business Park are on smaller tracts that could be attractive for offices, Woods said.
"We want a good mix at the airport that will provide a stable source of income for the airport," said Woods, who noted that the mission there will always be about providing the best aviation services possible. "Most anybody who comes to the airport is impressed with operations and facilities. We have a gem in our county that most communities are very envious of, and that’s an airport of our size capacity."
Reach Scott Broden at 615-278-5158 and on Twitter @ScottBroden.