by Stan Morris
WALNUT RIDGE, Ark. – Plans are being drawn up which could lead to the construction of an 80-acre disaster simulation city after the Walnut Ridge Airport Commission gave its approval Monday night.
The site would be used as a training ground for emergency responders with simulated scenery to various disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and so forth. First responders, the National Guard, and other groups could use the location. It would potentially serve a seven to nine state area, if the idea comes to fruition.
From Arkansas State University, Dr. Deborah Persell, Program Director, Regional Center for Disaster Preparedness Education, and Major Brian Mason, Executive Officer, Assistant Professor of Military Science, gave a presentation to the airport commission Monday night.
The airport commission voted unanimously to approve Chairman Don Cavenaugh, Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp and City Attorney Nancy Hall to begin creating plans to present to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing the necessary land to be leased for the project.
The term “disaster city” is a reference to what it the project would be. It’ll be 80 acres, made up of pods of small training cities inside one land mass. Snapp described it as something with “limitless opportunities.”
“They’re looking at a campus facility here and one in Imboden,” Snapp said. “We’ve been working with them on that with Mayor Chris Jones.”
A misconception Snapp said has been put out is that any agreements have been made. There are no agreements, right now. At the moment, he described it as two groups from different entities just trying to be able to move forward to make this deal happen.
The airport commission meeting packed the Walnut Ridge Police Complex, with standing room only. In addition to the presentation from Persell and Mason, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Fran Cavenaugh spoke along with Walnut Ridge Fire Chief Frank Owens. Representatives from Arkansas State Police and ASU also were on hand.
“While it’s nowhere near ready for business, it’s an opportunity fitting for our airport,” Snapp said. “The great thing about it, it looks like Imboden will also pull a training site/facility if their city council authorizes the mayor to move forward so it’s a benefit for the entire state of Arkansas but for the whole region.”
Walnut Ridge Airport is the number one rated airport rated by FEMA in case of a major earthquake, Snapp said. If the “city” is constructed, it would be capable of being used for a command center in case of natural disasters or earthquakes in this area, too.
However, the major benefit comes from how many who could potentially use the site. Similar facilities have 50 to 400 per week attending training at the site, Owens said.
Other areas that have similar facilities have 50 to 400 a week coming in to train per week, depending on groups signing up.
“That’s where the economic impact would come from,” Snapp said. “It’s not that the training facility itself would have a lot of full time employees but it’s the potential for the people to come in. Even if you just look at a small crowd of 50 or 60 for two to four days training, that’s significant.”
The City of Imboden must still decide their direction at a future council meeting. Chairman Cavenaugh, Snapp and Hall will draw up a lease to propose for approval for the FAA, next.