This article was originally published on www.timesfreepress.com.

Contributed by Hoar Construction / A rendering shows the 1,300-space, four-level parking garage under construction in front of the passenger terminal at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport’s biggest-ever parking project, a $25 million, four-level garage designed to boost convenience and protect travelers from the weather, has hit its first milestone.

Site demolition has begun for the 1,300-space garage that will sit in front of the airport’s passenger terminal, according to builder Hoar Construction.

The milestone is the first of about a half dozen key benchmarks in raising the airport’s first garage during the next 12 months, said Will Gaither, project executive for Hoar.

But the work comes as air travel has sunk in Chattanooga and around the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

At Lovell Field on Friday, two parking lots were practically empty and another was less than half full as many people avoid air travel due to coronavirus concerns.

Gaither said the absence of passengers may be “a silver lining” for the builder as workers won’t have to jockey around people using mostly jammed parking lots, which are typical for mid-July.

“Maybe it will speed up the project,” he said. “We hope. It’s too early to say. The whole project is weather dependent.”

Airport officials late last year agreed to borrow $25 million over the next 20 years from Pinnacle Bank to finance the parking garage.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport CEO Terry Hart talk about Lovell Field’s first parking garage, scheduled to open next summer.

Terry Hart, the airport’s chief executive, said the garage will offer 650 net new public spaces when complete.

The garage is going up on existing parking spaces, he said. Also, the deck’s 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 over the next year, 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.

That scope of work would mark the largest expansion of the terminal since it was rebuilt nearly three decades ago, officials said.

“We’ll evaluate it. It’s all driven off the master plan,” Hart said about a long-range blueprint for the airport that was crafted a couple of years ago.

Until the pandemic hit this spring, the airport was on its way to a seventh consecutive year of record passenger traffic.

Last year, the airport blew past 2018’s high mark by nearly 10%. The airport boarded 554,050 passengers in 2019, according to figures.

While passenger boardings in Chattanooga were down nearly 95% in April from a year ago, Hart said traffic is building back up monthly, though slowly.

“It’s going to be a journey,” he said, adding that he expects to see a gradual increase in flights by the airlines.

Last week, the airport reopened its short-term parking lot, which had been closed to prepare for the parking garage project.

Gaither said that in a month all the utilities will be relocated on the site. Work on the deck’s foundation will begin around mid-August, he said.

The project will start going vertical through the end of the year, he said.

“It will top out in the first quarter of next year,” Gaither said.

Hart said one unique element of the project will be what he termed “a junction,” or a large plaza where a pedestrian entrance and exit at the garage meets the front of the passenger terminal.

“The group did a wonderful design,” he said.

Gaither called the space “a welcome mat” for visitors to the city or “a welcome-home mat” for residents.

He said the space will hold colored pavers in a variety of patterns as well as plants to depict diversity.

“It will be a welcome to a diverse community here,” Gaither said.

Contact Mike Pare at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.