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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Workers place the first structural support beam for the new $25 million parking garage at the Chattanooga Airport on Wednesday.

Construction of Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport's $25 million parking deck began rising up in front of the passenger terminal Wednesday as the first vertical support beam for the four-story structure was installed.

The 48,000-pound concrete column, at about 50 feet in height, is the first of some 520 structural pieces which builders will put into place as they erect the massive garage, said airport Chief Executive Terry Hart.

Hart said builders plan to install about 13 pieces a day over the next 40 days with hopes of having those up by around Thanksgiving. The 1,300-space garage is slated for completion by summer 2021.

"A lot of preparation goes into making this happen," he said as a large crane lowered the first column into place.

Blake Poole, the airport's vice president of air service and economic development, said about 12 to 15 columns will be installed in each of four rows to support the parking garage. He said the concrete beams were prefabricated off-site and transported to the job.

"It's a key milestone," Poole said about the initial column.

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Chattanooga Airport parking deck project

The building of the parking garage, the airport's first, comes as Lovell Field and aviation in general tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic-induced plunge in traffic.

While parking was an issue at the Chattanooga Airport before the pandemic, that's not the case currently as passenger boardings on the airlines are slowly rebuilding.

"We're getting ready for when things get back to normal," said Hart.

One way of gauging passenger traffic is the number of vehicles left in the airport parking lots overnight. Hart said that while the number was down to 50 in April during the initial lock down of the economy, that figure has risen to about 565 vehicles.

"At least it's going on an upward trend," he said.

Still, before the pandemic, the number of overnight vehicles ranged from 1,200 to 1,400 per night, Poole said. Prior to 2020, airport officials had seen six consecutive years of record passenger boardings.

Poole said the recent addition of new nonstops between Chattanooga and Houston along with the return of direct flights to Chicago will help boost traffic.

The airport continues to wait for the restart of nonstop flights to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, he said.

Brad Gordon of Dayton, Ohio, said Wednesday he flew into Chattanooga for business on Delta Air Lines, adding that he "definitely" feels it's safe to fly amid the pandemic. But he said that this was his first flight since the start of the virus.

"The airlines are taking all of the right safety precautions," Gordon said.

Hart said the garage will offer 650 net new public spaces when complete. The deck is going up on existing parking spaces, and its ground floor is earmarked for the relocation of rental cars. That shift will free up space adjacent to the terminal for a future use that is under evaluation, potentially valet service, the airport CEO said.

As the garage goes up, the design of an extensively enlarged passenger terminal will take place, Hart said.

If the Airport Authority green-lights the terminal work, new gates for airliners, more restaurant and restroom space, a possible second security checkpoint and other enhancements would go up, according to officials.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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