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Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center Flies High

By Tricia M. McCunney and Jeffrey S. Jones, CCP, PE, LEED AP, Hill International, Inc.

The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta is built on the grounds of the busy, growing Fulton County “Charlie Brown” Airport.  

Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the project was designed to lift up its beleaguered neighborhood by providing both a community center and source of education and inspiration.

The center, at 16, 200 square feet, includes two art galleries, three classrooms, and a large multi-purpose room with a stage and two projectors that can be used for concerts, plays, presentations and social and business gatherings.  

While the name of the center may by long, it perfectly describes its function.  According to Fulton County’s website, the Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center is a community “gathering place” that will serve three important, inter-related purposes:  1) showcasing the history of North American aviation and African Americans’ key roles in that history, 2) enabling education in and training for aviation careers, and 3) providing space for visual and performing arts.

From the start, it seemed as if the Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center was flying into some pretty fierce headwinds.  Politics and public scrutiny threatened to drive the project off course.  Extreme weather and historic snowfalls did their best to ground it.  Adjacent, around-the-clock air traffic made logistics a challenge. A stringent budget was always on the radar.  Contractor delays almost thwarted plans for a stellar opening day.  And, a federal government shutdown nearly sent the project into a fatal tailspin.

Yet, thanks to a committed group of government officials and community leaders, and an equally committed project team, the $5 million project opened to rave reviews recently.

Making the impossible, possible…

The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta

After more than 30 years in construction management, Jeffrey Jones has seen his share of challenging projects.  But, good construction managers like Jones are adept at making the hard seem easy, and the impossible, well…possible.

Jones’ own odyssey on the project began in early 2013, when he replaced another Hill project manager who’d left the firm.  He was cautioned early on that the project had become mired in politics, and had to be put out for bid twice because the initial contractor proposals were substantially higher than the budget allowed.  Fulton County is the largest and most densely populated county in Georgia, and governed by a Board of Commissioners that is attuned to the needs of the county’s African-American communities.

Jones, a Senior Project Manager, certified cost professional, Professional Engineer and LEED-certified professional, has worked on contentious projects before.  He was ready for anything, he said. 

Inspiration and education

The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta

Led by determined county commissioner Emma I. Darnell, leaders from the neighborhood, known as Fulton Industrial Boulevard, had long been campaigning for a facility that would both bring the neighborhood together and provide educational tools not available at most public schools.  

“The area has gotten a reputation for being somewhat crime-ridden, with youth turning to crime instead of getting an education, ” said Jones.  “So Commissioner Darnell and others played a key role in pushing for this building to be, The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlantasimultaneously, a place for the arts and a source of education for young people that provides a way for them to learn about careers in aviation.

“Parents can bring their kids in and give them a taste of something they may not necessarily be exposed to in school.” 

The opening gallery exhibit at the facility features photos, memorabilia and history of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of World War II aviation pioneers who were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. armed forces.  Their heroic and historic contributions to the war effort were integral to the end of military segregation in the years following World War II and to the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement two decades later.  Their efforts also opened the door for African-Americans in all facets of aviation.  But, even today, the number of African-American pilots remains relatively low compared to white pilots.  Fulton County hopes to help narrow that gap by providing residents with the inspiration and education they’ll need to begin their own ascent into the field of aviation.

Challenges

Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center - exterior

During his 18 months as head of the project PM team, Jones used his management and people skills to keep the project moving despite setbacks, keep the public and the county informed, and build a sense of teamwork among those on-site.  He became one of the project’s most vocal advocates, and fiercely protected the county’s interests as project owner. “The county grew to trust and lean on the PM group, especially during the challenging times.  They counted on us to bring all of the parties together and get the job done, ” he said.

Hill teamed with Atlanta-based Matrix 3D, an architectural and project management firm, on the project.  The joint venture partners worked well together, jelling efforts on some tasks and working separately on others.  “Matrix 3D handled the design reviews, and Hill handled the early day-to-day interaction with the client.  We both handled all of the on-site project meetings and reports, ” Jones said.

While skies looked clear at the outset of the journey, the project had its share of challenges. Community outreach, especially during the design phase was essential to getting public and political support for the project.  “We had quite a lot of early community outreach, keeping the public informed about the design, presenting the team members, and ensuring that the needs of the end-user groups were met” Jones explained.

It also was essential that the project stay within its modest budget, and that work be completed efficiently and expediently, Jones said.  Record-setting amounts of rain and snow in Atlanta didn’t make staying on track easy.

“We had two big snow events in Atlanta, where normally we don’t get any. It was a rainy winter too, which can happen in Atlanta, but it was also snowy, which never happens, ” he said.

And, working on the grounds of a busy airport required special attention to planning and logistics.  “We had to be cognizant of the flight patterns, particularly when setting up a crane or bringing in the utilities, ” Jones said.

To add to the complexity, the project team’s movements on the site, particularly when encroaching on runways or setting up a crane, were subject to review and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. Such approval isn’t simple, even on good days.  Last fall, Jones wasn’t sure that approval would ever arrive.  “We were affected by the federal government shutdown in October 2013. We were trying to get an FAA permit to get a crane out there at the same time as the shutdown, ” he said.  Ultimately, the approval—and the crane—had to wait until the shutdown ended two weeks later.  While Jones admits his team had to scramble to make up for the lost time, he also enjoyed learning how the county’s transportation and facilities agencies interacted with the FAA, the airport and its control tower.

The project team also had to regularly confer with the Fulton County Arts and Culture Department, which has offices in the new facility, and oversees its exhibits and other offerings.  “I really enjoyed working with them on bringing the exhibits in and getting them set up, ” Jones said.

In addition, Jones and his staff set up meetings with and training for the building’s operations managers, who are tasked with keeping it and its cutting-edge HVAC and other systems flying high.  “The last five percent of the project is always the most challenging.  There was quite a bit of activity at the end of the project to get the punch-list items completed and get the contractor phased out of the building, get everyone moved in, and get the building ready for the grand opening, ” Jones said.

A Juneteenth Grand Opening

Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center - Ribbon-Cutting

While Jones said he enjoyed the final preparations and last-minute rush, the grand opening posed one of the project’s greatest challenges.  Delays in the project’s final weeks led to a change in the date for the center’s grand opening.  In hindsight, the new date that was chosen for the grand opening—June 19—seems entirely fitting, Jones said.

“The date for opening was moved from May 15 to June 19.  The change allowed last-minute site and other work to be completed, and also aligned the opening with an important date in African-American history, ” Jones explained.  “June 19, known as ‘Juneteenth, ’ or Emancipation Day, commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States.  It was a day when what once seemed impossible became possible.  So, having the center’s opening on June 19 made it an even bigger celebration.”

The finished building, designed in the shape of an airplane, complete with a tail and wings visible from above, didn’t disappoint.  Its modern design and clean lines deftly accommodate both the aesthetic and the functional, Jones said.  Plans are underway to nominate the project for an AIA architectural award.  “I really like the design, and I think that the designers did a good job of meeting the needs of the community and the county government, ” he said.

The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta

The building is fronted by a 10, 000-square-foot plaza that further enhances its appeal as a community hub, and a parking lot and walkway that mimics the runways of the airport next door, complete with runway lights and airport-inspired directional markings.

For the community, many of whom had worked since 1999 to get the project funded and airborne, opening day was especially rewarding.  “I think the most gratifying thing was actually when the general public and the county came together to celebrate the grand opening, ” Jones said.  “They all loved the new Arts building.”

For Jones, a 30-year Atlanta area resident who has managed projects throughout the southeastern U.S., the challenges on the project made its Juneteenth opening all the more gratifying.  He enjoyed working with Fulton County, and hopes to win future work there.  “I see a future for more state and county government projects in the Atlanta area, ” he said.  “However, this one was unique in its effort to tie together the arts and community education. Those don’t come around very often.”

Like the center itself, Jones and his team overcame many obstacles that they hadn’t anticipated when the journey started.  But, Jones is quick to point out, overcoming obstacles is what good PMs do.  “I feel like we were able to turn the challenges into positives and really help them out.  That, for me, both professionally and personally, was very rewarding.”

Images:

1) The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of World War II aviation pioneers who were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. armed forces. 

2)  The Hill-Matrix 3D team with Fulton County Director of Facilities and Transportation Services. (L to R:  Wilford Ray, Matrix 3D; David Ricks, Fulton County FTS, Jeffrey Jones, Hill International)

3) “Parents can bring their kids in and give them a taste of something they may not necessarily be exposed to in school.”

4) Aviation Community Cultural Center Public Art Project featuring 15 glass, back-lit  portrait panels by artist Michael R. Reese around the theme of "aviation,  overcoming gravity to achieve flight as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement".

5)  The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center in Atlanta, Georgia, opened to rave reviews recently.  The “Building as Art” facility, designed to resemble an airplane, serves as a community center, aviation history museum and classroom for those interested in aviation careers.

6)  Hundreds attended the recent ribbon-cutting of the facility, heralded as an important hub of its Fulton Industrial Boulevard neighborhood. Hill was part of a joint venture that provided CM services for the project.

7)  Rear and southeastern façade, Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center.

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