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Converting Luling's Carter Airport into evacuation center forces skydiving business to look elsewhere

Skydive Lone Star needs to close up shop by the end of 2021 but does not have another airport to relocate to.

LULING, Texas — Luling's Carter Memorial Airport is now Caldwell County's Carter Memorial Airport, but soon it won't be an airport at all.

For years, the airport was not fit for commercial service. Only paragliders and a skydiving company used the runway for recreational use, according to Luling City Manager Mark Mayo.

"We would not be available for any of the 90/10 money unless we were to lengthen our airport and bring it up to the standard for tech start, which meant we would have to widen the airport and lengthen the airport," Mayo said. "Due to the fact we would have to lengthen the airport, we'd have to purchase more property because we did not have the property to be able to do that."

In addition to the cost of trying to obtain the 90/10 grant from TxDOT, the Carter Memorial Airport is in near-disrepair – the runway is cracked and curves with the land it was built on decades ago.

"When you roll a heavy piece of equipment out on it, it's too spongy. The base has failed, so the runway itself needs to be completely leveled and resurfaced," Mayo said.

Instead of trying to come up with the money to fix it, Luling closed the property and sold the airport to Caldwell County. According to County Judge Hoppy Haden, the airport will become a new evacuation center. He said it will be only one of a few of the centers across Texas.

"I think since 2011, [we've had] nine federally declared disasters, some hurricanes, some fires and some floods. San Marcos River is our big flooding problem," Haden said. "In each of those cases, we had evacuees and we would have to put them in schools or whatever shelters we could find for evacuees."

The eventual 45,000-square-foot facility will act as an interim home for evacuees during a disaster emergency.

"We're trying to provide them interim space where they can go and have a few days to to wait it out and be able to go back to their home and then make some decisions about what their future holds," Haden said. "Right now, there are not very many places like this in the state."

However, in closing the airport operations, the City of Luling is forcing the people and businesses who rent hangar space to move with little notice.

"Come the last week of October, we got the letter in the mail that they were closing the airport, which completely, I mean, completely surprised everybody," Joe Johnson, who owns and operates Skydive Lone Star, said.

Johnson has owned the skydiving business since 2017, always operating it from Carter Memorial Airport. He said finding a new hangar, much less moving a small business to another airport, takes longer than the two to three months Luling gave as notice.

"You got to make sure the airports are viable, make sure they want you there," Johnson said. "You've got to get permission from the council. So there's a vote and everything like that. So typically it takes, you know, six months to a year to get approval to get to be able to operate on the airport as a business."

Johnson started looking for viable airports soon after receiving the notice to vacate the property, but hasn't finalized any deals yet.

He was in the process of securing some land next to the airport to continue operating his business. However, with the closure of the airport, the land deal will also fall through. In order to save money to acquire the land, Johnson lived on the section of airport property leased to him by the City. A few of his employees lived on the property too.

"Money's tight. You know, it's our slow season," Johnson said. "It couldn't be at the more worse time, you know, and 90 days is just, I mean, you can't move in 90 days, you know, you can't buy a house and then you can't really do anything in 90 days."

According to Mayo, neither Johnson nor the City pursued renewing the lease.

"They got outside their lease. They were doing things that were against their lease, and we told them that they were going to have to shut that down, and if they could not finish and strike their deal to purchase the property, they were going to have to move all their operation back inside the airport on the airport property, and it would strictly be only the skydiving operation," Mayo said.

Mayo told all the tenants of the airport hangars they should be out by Dec. 31, but followed up with the absolute last day they can be on the property as Jan. 31, 2022.

"Inherently they're putting me out of business and making me homeless, you know?" Johnson said. "It's just at Christmas. What a Christmas present, you know? But I understand, business is business."

According to Haden, the evacuation center plans are still being designed. The facility, which will be used as a civic center when not being used to temporarily house evacuees, will take at least 18 months to build.


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