Good airport priceless

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2008

Now that they’ve talked face-to-face, city and county leaders could soon come up with a plan to make the Rowan County Airport more attractive to prospective businesses. If the two boards keep this up, Salisbury-Rowan could wind up with the up-to-date airport it deserves.
County commissioners attended a Salisbury City Council meeting last week in hopes of persuading the city to de-annex the airport or work out tax incentives. It looked like a potential showdown. But the city was completely in agreement about the airport’s tremendous potential. The council had no interest in de-annexation, but it did have a report the city developed months ago outlining an airport development zone and an economic incentive agreement.
That packet of information dropped into a black hole somewhere between City Hall and the County Administrative Offices last year. Commissioners say they never saw it before Tuesday’s council meeting, which is a curiosity. How that happened, though, is immaterial now. What’s important is how the boards work together from here on out to make the Rowan County Airport the economic development magnet that it can be ó and that Rowan County needs. The right facilities can draw corporate fleets and the companies that use them.
For an example, look no further than Iredell County. The Statesville Regional Airport recently extended its runway with federal funds covering 90 percent of the $14 million cost and the city and county sharing the rest. Since then, it has landed Lowe’s corporate fleet and Newell Rubbermaid’s aviation operations center. The Statesville Airport also houses fleets for Dale Earnhardt Inc., Gillette Evernham Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and JR Motorsports. That’s more than $166 million worth of planes on which the city and the county levy taxes ó and a slew of people doing business in and around Statesville.
This is not just the economic development idea du jour. Rowan County’s airport needs to get a lot better if it wants to be anything more than a landing strip for people who fly as a hobby. Commissioners have been working toward improving the airport for years, but progress has been stop-and-go. At one point, Chairman Gus Andrews, Commissioner Steve Blount and County Manager Tim Russell ó none of whom is still in office ó visited Sen. Elizabeth Dole in Washington to get her to help Rowan get federal funds for expansion. That visit brought some results, but the players changed and progress stopped. Russell left office in a storm of controversy, and one of the problems that surfaced in his wake was a ridiculous agreement in which the county was paying $8,000 a month to lease a hangar from a Statesville company ó a hangar which the county in turn was leasing out for $700 a month. It’s a complicated story of a deal gone wrong, a symptom of the airport’s dire straits and Russell’s feverish efforts to draw business to it.
Rowan County needs all the help it can get in the complicated process of winning federal approval and funds for major airport improvements. Instead of being a problem, the city’s annexation could wind up being a benefit. The airport belongs to the county, but the county now has a strong partner in the development of the airport and its surroundings. That in itself is an improvement.