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Now ready for takeoff

South Boston News
Right: Mike Denton, manager and commission chair of the Lake Country Airport.
SoVaNow.com / September 04, 2013
Mention the words “Clarksville” and “airport” and some residents will think, “Oh yeah, that’s the strip of asphalt off Highway 15 South once used by executives of Russell Stover candy company or Burlington Industries.”

A closer observation reveals work recently done to the property, near the airport’s red brick office building. Yet few may realize that the Lake Country Regional Airport handles nearly 500 flights per year and serves as a loading/staging area for executives of computer giants HP and Microsoft. The airport also hosts Life Flight, and now has a cutting edge weather system known as AWOS — automated airport weather station — which offers a local weather broadcast.

“It is so much more than a storage area for a few planes,” said airport manager Mike Denton. “It is an economic development tool that makes money for this town.”

Small planes know to stop at the Lake Country Regional Airport for its inexpensive fuel. Others see it as a convenient stopping/refueling point when traveling either north or south. These pilots, as well as others flying overhead, often are intrigued by the lake and will return with their family for a vacation or to fish and camp in the area.

“These people shop in our towns, eat in our restaurants, and stay in area motels or campgrounds,” said Denton.

This airport offers an air taxi service to Manassas Airport outside Washington, D.C., Denton continued. For engineers flying in for a meeting at either HP or Microsoft, “our airport is close to their meeting site. Besides we can meet their every need including offering them a courtesy car. It is all just a phone call away.”

Calling his job a labor of love, Denton recalled the history of the airport, which started when the Marks family donated land to Clarksville for a municipal facility. By 2003, then-Clarksville Mayor Bob Wilkerson and Town Council agreed that for the airport to grow and succeed, it had to be separated from the town. From there, the Lake Country Regional Airport Commission was born.

Its members were either pilots or people passionate about aviation. Denton calls local resident Joe Noah the founding father. Today, the members of the Airport Commission include Jane Lipscomb, Mike Farrow, Glenn Burney, Dave Williams, Steve Rozek, Gregg Gordon, Andy Hargrove, Mike Denton and Lou Zarelli.

The mission, from the start, was a commitment to “providing a safe, efficient, convenient, and economically self-sustaining air transportation facility consistent with state and federal guidelines responsive to airport-user and community needs while supporting and promoting the region’s economic growth and development,” said Denton, the current chair.

The first act of the Commission was to purchase 99 acres of land from the Marks family. The second involved negotiating with the US Army Corps of Engineers to extend the runway onto Corps property.

From there, the members of this newly created commission set about learning the rules and regulations that attach to operating an airport, developing protocols, and addressing necessary infrastructure issues. Denton came on board as the chair of the commission and airport manager in 2005.

An avid pilot, Denton said the business of running a regional airport was foreign to him, but he added with a laugh, “I was either to naive or too stupid to know I was in over my head.” He then set about educating himself, not just about operations, but also grant writing — which he still uses to obtain funding for airport projects. He also became an aircraft maintenance technician (AMTs), a person licensed to inspect and perform or supervise maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alteration of aircraft and aircraft systems.

Recently, Denton was asked by members of the Clarksville Town Council if Mecklenburg County officials support the local airport, especially since they operate their own facility in conjunction with Brunswick County. Denton’s response was a resounding, “Yes, because they understand the economic value of it.”

One example Denton shared with Council was that, thanks to available grant monies, most of the ongoing and prior projects — from maintenance to upgrades — for the Clarksville airport are funded through an 80/20 grant. The federal government or outside agency provides 80% of the funds and the local airport commission and participating local governmental entities (Clarksville, Boydton and Mecklenburg County) only have to kick in 20%.

Despite its long tenure, Denton conceded the Lake Country Airport is still in its developmental phase, and that money is always an issue. However, Denton said, “We are poised for development.” He points to the recent installation of the AWOS and the clearing of additional property (with federal funds) which will be used for further airport development.

As he looks down the road twenty years, Denton says it is not unreasonable to expect that Clarksville will have an airport with a “nice welcome center, several new hangars, and an entirely self-sufficient operation.” In addition, Denton envisions the airport as “not just another port of entry, but also as a safe haven for all small aircraft.”

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