By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Flying in to race day at Sparta may get a lot easier. And the Indiana casino boats could seem a lot closer.
For small plane owners, anyway.
Reviving an idea that has been around for more than a decade, the federal government plans to spend $350,000 to study the feasibility of building a regional airport just outside Northern Kentucky that would serve the mostly rural counties of Gallatin, Carroll and Owen.
Local officials say large employers and attractions in the region - including the Kentucky Speedway and the Belterra Casino and Resort in Indiana across the Ohio River from Gallatin County - would benefit from an airport that could be used by clients, customers and high-ranking employees.
A regional airport could also help attract development to the area, said Owen County Judge-executive William "Billy" O'Banion, who worked with the judge-executives from Gallatin and Carroll counties on securing federal money for the study.
"It's wise for us to look at something like this because for the longer term it could be an economic stimulus that could provide some jobs," O'Banion said Monday. "What the impact will be, we can't say for sure."
Kentucky U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Southgate Republican, inserted $350,000 for the study in the Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that Congress approved last week and which President Bush is expected to sign.
"The Tri-County Regional Airport in Gallatin, Carroll or Owen County ... could have a positive impact both for the (Kentucky) Speedway and local businesses in Northern Kentucky," Bunning said. "If it is needed, it should be built."
The study will begin shortly, though the date has not been released, and will take six months or so to complete.
Kentucky Speedway President Mark Simendinger said the airport is a key component in the future of the three-year-old raceway, which is near Sparta in Gallatin County, 35 miles southwest of Cincinnati.
Though the $150 million speedway has four weekends of professional auto racing each spring and summer, the track's main goal is attracting a Winston Cup NASCAR race. Winston Cup is the most popular professional racing series, featuring top drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Because Kentucky Speedway is competing against other raceways for the opportunity to host a Winston Cup race, having an airport close to the track would boost the chances for getting such a race, Simendinger said Monday.
"We're interested in (the airport), just like everybody else down there," he said. "For us to achieve what we want, to become a world-class motor sports facility, we have to have private air transportation closer than" the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Boone County.
Simendinger said a regional airport could handle has many as 400 flights on race weekends from drivers, corporate sponsors and well-heeled racing fans coming in on private and company-owned jets and planes.
Many fans, drivers and sponsors fly in to the area for the Indy Racing League, or IRL, race held each August at the Kentucky Speedway, Simendinger said. But the exact number is unknown because airports in the region - including the international airport and Lunken Airport on Cincinnati's east side - do not track flight activity for the speedway, he said.
"The way NASCAR and the Indy Racing League are set up, there are so many team sponsors, drivers and other participants that all have private aircraft and need to get in and out of the area," Simendinger said.
Over the past weekend, the Daytona Beach International Airport handled nearly 500 private planes, nearly all of them jets, for the Daytona 500 Winston Cup race that was run Sunday, said airport spokesman Steve Cooke.
Among those flying into Daytona for the race was New York developer Donald Trump and actor John Travolta, who flies his own Boeing 707.
"The vast majority of fans drive here for the race, but that's an extremely busy weekend for us because we do have so much private plane activity," Cooke said Monday.
Ted Bushelman, spokesman for the international airport, said the airport is not aware of the study but would not object to construction of a regional airport because it is often too busy to handle private plane flights.
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