By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The Mercer County Airport Authority meeting on Thursday included a pair of significant announcements relating to a $110,000 grant from the H.I. Shott Jr., Foundation to undertake long overdue rest room and lobby renovations in the airport, as well as the promise of a conditional matching grant of $400,000 from the Shott Foundation to cover half of the expense for a new eight-unit T-Hangar at the airport that requires the Airport Authority to raise an additional $400,000.
However, the surprise of the meeting came near the conclusion of the monthly meeting when nine-year veteran airport manager, Randall Earnest, announced his plans to retire on June 1. Earnest accepted the challenge of managing the airport on June 1, 2004, a month after the death of former airport manager, John Gilley who passed away a month earlier.
“When I came into this office, the mail was all piled up in the middle of the desk and sliding down both sides,” Earnest said. “The next manager won’t have to go through what I did at first, and there will be some money in the bank too.”
Earnest said that he has been considering his retirement for some time. “I grew up on a family farm off of Rock Road near Matoaka,” he said. “I still own that property. I will turn 62 in May, and it just felt like it was time for me to make this step.” Earnest has already retired from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department after 31 years of service. He was most recently Chief Deputy for Sheriff Harold Buckner before accepting the position at the county airport.
“I didn’t expect Randall’s announcement,” Marc Meachum, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce said. “We had just received news about the Shott Foundation’s grant to repair the rest rooms and to replace the furnishings in the lobby. The funds for the new hangar was also very important. Even though we would like to have a commercial carrier serving our airport, our future at the Mercer County Airport is in general aviation.”
Charles Cole, a member of the Mercer County Airport Authority, discussed his plans to meet with the Shott foundation to discuss the two grant requests. Cole made the presentations earlier this week.
“I have been working to find funding to redo the bathrooms and replace the existing furnishings in the lobby ever since I was appointed to the board,” Cole said. “Those two areas are so important to our airport because they are the first thing general aviation passengers and pilots see when they land at our airport. I also requested funds for a golf cart to travel to the existing hangars. They approved that.”
Cole explained that T-hangars are popular now among general aviation pilots. “The hangars we have now are community hangars where they cram as many planes in there as they can get in,” he said. “They are not very efficient. The T-hangars can have several different units with separate doors for each unit. Each plane owner would be responsible for their own utilities. We see the new T-hangar as a way to attract more aircraft that may help us in the future with the (Federal Aviation Administration).”
Cole said that the $400,000 he requested from the Shott Foundation will only cover half of the expense of a new T-hangar. “That grant is contingent on the Airport Authority raising the other $400,000. We have some fundraising ideas. We’ll be out there working to raise funds.”
Earnest said that he is willing to help the authority make the transition to a new airport manager. “I don’t mind helping them out,” he said. “I’ve planned through the years and I’ve got myself in a place where I can retire. There are several things I plan to do.”
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org