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Aviator proposes learning center
Renn Gruber remembers the moment that inspired his interest in aviation.

"I won a contest when I was living outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and I got to fly to Washington D.C. I was probably 11 or 12 years old, but I was able to get up on the flight deck of the airplane," he said. "That's where my love of aviation came from."

Gruber's experience inspired a lifelong career in aviation as the owner of Gruber Aviation and current president of the Glynn County Tenants Association. It's that kind of inspiration he hopes to instill in youth.

To get youth interested in flying, Gruber hopes to open an Aviation Learning Center on the site of the old Low Country Candle Factory at the McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport.

He may be a step closer to it. When he presented the idea to the airport commission at its meeting Wednesday, commissioners were interested and asked him to return with a more detailed plan.

"I think everybody was very enthused about it," Gruber said.

He's in the process of filing as a nonprofit organization with the state.

"The candle factory building has stood empty for the last four years. Its lease was not renewed because commissioners wanted to attract an aeronautical business to the space, Gruber said.

He imagines a space filled with learning materials, desks and salvaged airplanes to give youth a first hand experience in the world of aeronautics.

But the building is need of repairs. The roof leaks, water doesn't drain properly and doors need replacing.

The commission has said it would take around $265,000 for improvements, but Gruber thinks he can do it for much less.

He's optimistic that pilots and other aviation businesses will donate time and salvaged airplanes.

"There are so many pilots that are retired or semi-retired out there that can help," Gruber said. "I think I can get it done with minimum cost out of pocket."

When Gruber began his venture into aviation as a teenager, it was easy to spend time with pilots and see the bustling activity of an airport.

With increased security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, children no longer have much access to airports.

"Even washing an airplane - it sounds silly - but that's how pilots used to get interested," Gruber said. "You went out, you helped out a pilot and then they took you for a ride. Kids can't do that now after 9/11."

Unless a new generation of pilots and aircraft engineers is inspired, Gruber believes the aviation business will suffer.

"If we want to keep going, if we want to be a viable business in the future... we've got to start doing this stuff," Gruber said. "And you've got to do it on a local level."

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