As projections stall, county sees expansion as key to airport
SALISBURY — Projections for the county airport’s growth are lagging, according to the facility’s master plan, but county leaders are confident a key extension to the runway will help the airport turn the corner.
Commissioners Jim Sides and Craig Pierce wooed local state delegates and congressional representatives during a visit to the airport last month.
Their message was simple: It takes money to make money.
Commissioners are vying for state funds and, if their efforts are successful, some federal dollars, too. They hope to use the monies to grow the runway from 5,500 feet to 6,000 feet.
A runway extension has been in the works for months, but county leaders have stepped up their game recently by meeting with state Department of Transportation officials to discuss using the spoils from the Interstate 85 construction as filler for the runway extension. They’ve also had meetings with state legislators.
Once the airport finishes a new 15,000-square-foot hangar, airport Director Thad Howell said, it could attract new corporate jets — and business opportunities.
But a longer runway could make efforts for economic development that much easier.
Falling behind projections
By 2012, the airport was estimated to have 106 single-engine planes, 14 multi-engine planes and 5 jets — totaling 125 aircraft.
That projection was based on a 2007 survey, which put the aircraft base at 95.
But after five years, the county is hovering around 90 aircraft on the base, according to County Manager Gary Page.
Page blames the recession.
“There are a lot of people that up until 2007 or 2008 were buying airplanes or fixing planes,” he said. “All of a sudden the recession hit. I don’t know anybody would’ve foreseen the worst recession in 80 years. I would hope that we’re turning the corner.”
With the new mammoth hangar, the airport can house jets costing from $2.5 million to $15 million.
And that kind of revenue, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said, will help spur the county’s plans future airport development.
“The only thing that prohibits that is the funding,” he said. “We try to balance out the funding at the airport. What we invest there, we pay only once, unlike some projects that we’ve been criticized for, like say funding to the schools.”
Pierce pointed out the school system’s capital outlay budget is an annual expense, unlike the airport project.
“At the airport, once you pay for it one time, you benefit from it from then on,” he said.
In the long run, Pierce said, corporate jets will pay off the new airport hangar.
“My point being, we get criticized for spending money at the airport,” he said. “A lot of citizens don’t understand the importance of having a good airport to attract business.”
The county initially planned to extend the runway on the southern end toward Airport Road, but that has changed.
Three years ago, after receiving a multi-million grant to purchase property around the airport — including a former Budweiser warehouse and two homes near the runway — the county found a nearby business had ground contamination.
The airport had planned to purchase that piece of property as a part of the extension, but officials switched gears and decided to extend the north end of the runway.
“Two things happened — one, there’s a business out there, Parker Industries, in the old Perma-Flex building, that makes flexible rubber insulators for pipe,” Page said.
Page said the company employs about 40 people.
“If we extend the runway we have to relocate them, and they weren’t quite ready yet,” he said.
The contamination was another red flag, Page said.
“It turns out the original owner of Perma-Flex had a contaminated soil issue,” he said. “Rather than the county purchase property with contamination issues we held off going that direction.”
Extension is key
Howell joined the county’s Economic Development Director Robert Van Geons and local Chamber President Elaine Spalding, along with others, during a trip to Washington, D.C. on Monday.
The group hopes to convey the need for several “priority projects,” including the runway extension, as they pander for federal funds.
The runway is expected to cost about $7.2 million for the extension with another $3.2 million for the overlay process.
That process includes crowning and grooving the runway, which allows water runoffs and quicker, safer landings for pilots.
Pierce, former airport advisory board chairman, said the county has had at least one sit down with Transportation Secretary Tony Tata to discuss moving the airport up on the state’s list of priority projects.
One way, Pierce said, he hopes to gain favor is by hauling I-85 construction debris to the airport as filler.
“That saves us from having to buy a million dollars worth the dirt to fill in the infield,” he said.
The airport is currently rated as a 5,500-foot runway, Pierce said, but is only physically 5,300-foot because of the runway’s apron.
“You have runway footage that you cannot count in your calculation,” Pierce said. “It’s called runoff. We have 5,300 feet of take off and landing capabilities, but we also have an additional 300 feet of runway.”
The extension, Pierce said, would put the runway at a full 6,000 square-feet.
But commissioners still hope to get the runway to 6,500 feet.
Howell said larger corporate jets will be able to land on the runway when the extension is completed.
He declined to be interviewed by a Post reporter, responding to the request with a series of emails.
“... Either extension will enhance the possibility of business jet charter operations, such as NetJets, who cannot operate at Rowan County Airport during specific weather conditions,” he wrote.
Howell said there are two ways pilots would see a difference on the extended runway.
“The first is on high temperature days when the air is less dense. This condition increases the distance required to takeoff. Pilots also consider factors such as passengers, baggage, and fuel loads,” Howell wrote. “If it is determined the runway length cannot support the flight as planned, then these items are adjusted. Typically, all of the passengers must travel and fuel is consequently reduced. This possibly translates into a fuel stop, costing the operator time and money.”
Howell said the overlay process will also reduce puddles, making the runway safer, and more accessible to pilots.
“The other scenario is when the runway surface is contaminated with precipitation, such as water, snow, or slush,” he wrote. “Our runway is currently smooth, which allows these contaminants to accumulate,” he wrote.
Howell wrote the condition creates drag during takeoff, extending the distance required to lift off.
“The pilot faces the same choices in reducing weight in order to depart safely,” he wrote. “During the extension, we also plan to cut grooves in the entire length of the runway, creating channels for the water to drain away.”
County hopes airport becomes self sustaining
When a bill to de-annex the airport passed in June, the county touted its single taxing authority and new tax rate — 62.25 cents per $100 valuation — as a way to draw pilots to the airport.
During a airport advisory committee meeting last month, board members said pilots are happy about the single taxation and said it’s only a matter of time before the Rowan County airport becomes known for its low tax rate.
But Pierce said the airport is currently at full capacity.
“It’s a good problem to have when you have an airport with a waiting list for hangars,” he said.
The county has already began laying the groundwork for 10 new T-hangars, which will accommodate most average sized planes.
Successfully bringing in jets, Page said, would give the county the needed revenue to move forward with other airport improvements.
Since 2009, Page said, the county has made significant strides to make the airport nearly self sustaining.
“When I came here, the airport was upside down about $150,000 a year,” Page said, noting the loss came after paying overhead expenses. “Today, we’re probably upside down about $50,000.”
Page said the savings came by nixing the airport’s maintenance department.
“We had to buy materials, we had to service the planes, we had to collect money — and in the end I told the board I felt that I didn’t like the liability issues,” he said.
Now, the airport keeps a handful of private services at the facility for pilots.
Page stopped short of giving a timeframe on when the airport might be self sustaining, but said a corporate jet would be a key step.
“If we were to fill it up,” Page said of the new hangar, “then the taxes alone off the planes that we expect to get would close that gap.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.