Airport Privatization Proponent Speaks Out
Propeller Investments’ Brett Smith believes his plan will lead Gwinnett out of the recession and plans to prove noise concerns are unfounded.
Brett Smith is a believer.
As the managing director of Propeller Investments, Smith is convinced his plan for the privatization of Briscoe Field could result in tremendous economic benefits for the area.
“I look for projects that are interesting, that create jobs,” he said. “I look for projects that can make a difference.”
Smith believes he and his company can make a difference in the greater Gwinnett community by bringing commercial airline service to the Lawrenceville airport.
“I believe in this,” Smith said. “This will create history.”
Two years ago, Smith approached the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners with the idea of privatizing the airport and adding commercial service.
Smith, who attended school in Atlanta and spends a good deal of time in the area on business, said he became frustrated with the amount of time it took to get through Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
“We own a company out in Cobb County,” he said. “I was coming down to Atlanta and I made the mistake of flying on Continental and ended up in the D Concourse. I was here for a day meeting and I didn’t have anything other than my briefcase and it took me 45 minutes to get out of the terminal.”
Smith felt there had to be a better solution for business travelers trying to reach destinations in the suburbs.
“We started looking at all the airports in the area,” he said.
After what he describes as “a lot” of homework, Smith decided Gwinnett’s 500-acre airport would be the perfect candidate.
“There’s significantly high unemployment,” Smith said. “You have infrastructure that really could be improved, particularly 316 which is a nightmare.”
According to Smith, privatizing the airport could solve both of those problems.
“A project like what we envision would force the state to fix it,” he said. “I thought that was a positive.”
As for the economic impact, Smith estimates privatizing the airport and introducing commercial flights could add $1 billion each year to the local economy and create as many as 20,000 jobs over the next ten years.
Before approaching the county, Smith said he conducted a poll to determine community interest and support for the project.
“I wanted to make sure the majority of people were in favor of this,” he said. “If they’re not, it’s a waste of time.”
In a poll of 531 registered voters, Smith said roughly 80 percent favored privatization with commercial service. Later polls reportedly yielded similar results.
According to Smith, a poll of 1,050 people showed 85 percent of respondents favored privatization with commercial service and a poll of just Lawrenceville residents showed 70 percent of poll participants favored the plan.
“This is a way to take this airport and turn it into a small origin and destination airport,” Smith said. The plan includes a maximum of 10 gates with up to an additional 80 flights a day, or an increase from the current 14 flights each hour to 18 per hour.
Smith said the problem he currently faces is that those opposed are protesting while those in favor have remained silent.
“I think it would have gone a lot smoother if people understood what it was,” he said.
Leading the opposition to Smith’s plan is the group Citizens for a Better Gwinnett (C4BG).
Last month, the group held a rally at the Feb. 22 Gwinnett County Commission meeting. The purpose of the meeting, according to group member Jim Regan, was to ensure commissioners know citizens are paying attention to discussions and developments regarding future plans for Briscoe Field.
Though on opposite sides of this issue, Regan and Smith do have one thing in common – both believe the airport situation has not been handled as well as it could have been. However, the similarities end there.
Regan takes issue with Smith’s assertion that polling showed support for commercialization and privatization.
“[The poll] didn’t mention commercial aviation,” Regan said. Instead, according to Regan, the questions focused on economic benefits, costs to the county and jobs.
“If you ask the right questions in a poll, you can get the answers you want,” he explained.
Regardless of what Smith’s poll numbers indicate, Regan and his group remain concerned about quality of life, traffic congestion, property values and noise. Smith maintains those issues should not be a concern.
“If you look at examples of what we are proposing – Palm Springs, Greenville-Spartanburg, Westchester County – in all of those cases, home values have increased over the past 10 years,” he said.
In contrast, Smith said home values around Briscoe Field have plummeted during the same time period.
“If you bought a home in Lawrenceville 10 years ago next to the airport and try to sell it today, you’ve lost 30 percent,” he said.
With commercial service, Smith says businesses would move to Gwinnett and companies would continue to grow causing home prices to increase over time.
As for noise, Smith plans to prove homeowners have no need to worry.
“The general aviation airplanes that are currently flying out of there are noisier than the next generation aircraft the airlines fly,” Smith said. “That train that goes by the airport is 10 times louder.”
Smith would not disclose the date, but said within the next few weeks he plans to hold a demonstration at the airport.
“I’m going to land a 737 and, four minutes later, a plane that currently goes in there is going to land. A few minutes later, the 737 will take off and the other plane will take off and people can judge for themselves,” he said. The time of the demonstration will be announced a few days in advance.
Regan said he looks forward to the demonstration and hopes the 737 will fly landing circles as part of the event.
“If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” Regan said. “I’d love it if he would do that on a Saturday or Sunday when everyone is home.”
Smith is convinced people’s fears will be allayed once they hear the 737 land and take off from Briscoe Field.
“I’m willing to do this because I know what the outcome is going to be,” he said. “The noise is not an issue. People say it is because they don’t know.”
The county has not yet issued a request for proposals (RFP) for any airport related projects, but did issue a request for qualifications (RFQ) for firms interested in submitting proposals to privatize the airport.
The county received responses from Smith’s company, American Airports Corporation, and Gwinnett Airport, LLC.
Smith is waiting on the county to act.
“The thing I want to convey to everybody is that we have an opportunity here,” he said. “If enough people are involved in the process, we can make it work for everybody.”
Smith strongly believes his proposed project has the potential to take the region out of the recession quickly.
“I know that what we’re offering is the best option,” he said. “It really takes Gwinnett to the next level.”