Rowan eyes Concord Regional Airport, which keeps on growing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
CONCORD ó Rowan County officials don’t have far to look to see the airport they would like to have off South Main Street in Salisbury.
Concord Regional Airport off I-85 is filled with millions of dollars worth of planes and rows of large hangars that accommodate jets and turboprops.
Major race teams and related businesses are spread around the perimeter of the 15-year-old airport and its 7,400-foot runway.
While enjoying the success, the city of Concord is committed to make the airport bigger and better.
It’s spread out over 750 acres off Poplar Tent Road and it’s going to get bigger.
“We’re continuing to buy acreage. We recently bought 28 acres,” Richard K. Lewis, aviation director, said recently. “We’re looking to buy more.”
Lewis stressed that the airport has lots of room to expand and more acreage available. He debunked a suggestion that the airport is built out and doesn’t have room to grow.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the demand,” Lewis said.
Large areas on the north and south end are already in the development plan.
A large hole on the south end called the “salad bowl” will take a million cubic feet of soil to fill it. The price tag is around $12 million.
The next immediate project is a 3-inch asphalt overlay of the runway expected to cost about $4 million.
While much of the money that has gone into developing the airport has been federal and state funds, the city of Concord has invested millions.
The city is still paying off the $7 million paid to Cabarrus County to get the property in a controversial midnight deal. The county bought up the property in the 1980s with plans to build the airport.
Neighbors and others pushed anti-airport candidates to victory. In the three weeks between the new candidates winning and taking office, the outgoing board sold the airport property to the city.
No one on either side of the controversy likely ever imagined the success of the airport and the growth fueled by the racing industry.
“When the airport was being developed and opened, no one had any inkling of the extent of NASCAR,” Lewis said.
Lewis and the 40-plus employees at the airport have grown accustomed to the race teams and their planes.
Hendrick Motorsports has five turboprops in one 48,000-square-foot hangar.
Other teams use jets, some bought from regional air carriers, capable of carrying 40 to 50 passengers or more.
During Daytona speed week, the planes ferry crew members to Daytona and return. Some make three or more round trips during the week.
During a tour of the airport, Lewis wheeled an SUV around, occasionally stopping to get clearance from the tower.
He points to the planes, the hangars, big and small, the areas for development and woodland acreage nearby that will likely be part of the airport in the future.
Lewis, who worked in airport management in Florida, joined the Concord airport in March 2000 as aviation director.
In addition to dealing with the building, development and operations, he is marketer in chief for the airport.
“Our message is we have the best entrance to the Charlotte market. You can land, rent a car and be on your way in five minutes. At the Charlotte airport, you would still be taxiing.”
His marketing plan includes every employee of the airport. “We continually market the airport,” Lewis said.
And they get plenty of help: a first-class Web page on the city’s Web site and the assistance of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, its president and CEO John Cox and its economic development arm.
“John Cox’s organization is the biggest advocate for the airport,” Lewis said.
He credits the overall success of the airport to support of the city and the city manager. “Their support has never waned.”
And Lewis also has good things to say about former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord, who got $12 million for the airport. Although the airport is in Rep. Mel Watt’s district, Lewis said Hayes kept his plane at the airport.
Although the economy is hitting the airport with decreased fuel sales, the planning process continues.
Talbert & Bright, airport engineers and consultants who work with dozens of airports in several states, has been working with the Concord Airport for nine years, including the 1,900-foot runway extension in 2005.
Talbert & Bright also works with the Rowan County Airport and recently completed a 20-year master plan for Rowan.
Carl M. Ellington, an engineer with Talbert & Bright, said the runway and taxiway are at their ultimate buildout length ó limited on the north end by Poplar Tent Road and on the south end by Rocky River.Ellington cited potential new growth for hangars, additional aircraft parking as well as other development.
While federal and state monies pay for many development costs at the airport, other costs, such as building hangars for rent, come from city tax dollars.
Lewis said the airport is generating enough revenue to cover its costs and contribute some to paying the debt service on loans, including the original $7 million paid to the county.
Among the plans in the works are a major expansion of the terminal, a new tower and possibly an industrial park adjacent to the airport.