Civilian aircraft could be flying in and out of the Army's Tipton Airfield at Fort Meade as early as Oct. 1 under a pact concluded yesterday by Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
During an hour-long meeting in Annapolis, the elected executives from the two counties formally agreed to lease and operate the 366-acre airfield.
Officials said they expect by this summer to hire an airport manager and a vendor to provide necessary services, including fuel.
The civilian airfield, less than 10 miles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, should be open by Oct. 1, said Sam Minnette, an Anne Arundel County project manager.
It could be home for up to 300 privately-owned planes and helicopters within five years, he said. More than 462 people are expected to work at the airport or directly provide it with services.
Tipton several years ago was slated to be closed as an Army airfield in a federal cost-saving measure.
Howard County has been pursuing a new civilian airport since 1991 because Hayes airfield in western Howard is at capacity. When Anne Arundel began looking at converting Tipton to civilian use in 1992, the two counties tentatively agreed to work together.
The counties are expected to assume ownership of the airport in 1997 after the Army has cleaned up numerous environmental hazards, including unexploded artillery shells that date back to World War I training maneuvers.
Officials from both counties were buoyant yesterday after signing the joint operating agreement.
"We have a number of Howard County pilots circling around right now waiting for a place to land," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
"It's something the public wants," said Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary. "Every place I go and speak, I run into someone who's got an airplane and wants to know when this will be open."
A key to the project moving forward was a lengthy economic analysis commissioned by former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall when he was in office.
Mr. Neall was willing to take over the airport as long as it did not cost county taxpayers.
Yesterday, the consultant hired by Anne Arundel County, The LPA Group Inc., concluded that the airport would not be a drain on taxpayers. Paul S. Puckli, a principal associate with the Valley Forge, Pa., firm, said the airport would be self-supporting with minimal investment from the two counties.
Opening a new airport of similar size would cost $3 million to $5 million, Mr. Puckli said.
"The counties are really getting an airport where they can just turn the key and open up for business," Mr. Puckli said.
Although the airport is expected to operate $31,866 in the red during its first eight months, Mr. Puckli said it will start generating a profit through hangar rentals and other fees in its second and third years. By the year 2000, it will be generating $1 million a year in net income, he said.
"It's a pretty major opportunity that you are being presented with," Mr. Puckli told the two county executives. "I think you ought to seize it."
Carl Balser, Howard County transportation chief, said the airport is a "public service just like a golf course."
Mr. Balser said it also is a tool to attract new business and jobs to the two counties.
"Businesses often look at the availability of an airport," he said.