Potential yet to be realized

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 10, 2013

“CEOs and presidents of companies are not coming to your community on bus or rail, They are coming in by air. You have one chance to make a first impression.”
So said Rick Barkes, deputy director for the N.C. Department of Transportation Aviation Division, in a February 2011 meeting at the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.
First impressions and job recruitment are just part of county commissioners’ rationale for focusing on extending the runway and expanding the Rowan County Airport (RUQ). Collecting taxes on expensive corporate planes is a powerful motivator, too. In 2012, some 90 planes valued at $21.5 million were based at Rowan. It makes sense to want more, if the cost of attracting them is not too great.
Giving local state legislators and members of Congress a tour of the facility last week, commissioners created some buzz and support for the project. The runway is 5,500 feet long now, too short for some of the bigger aircraft Rowan would like to attract. A long-range plan drawn up several years ago called for a 1,000-foot extension costing $22 million. Instead, commissioners now are talking about a 500-foot extension costing $8 million — more doable, but still steep.
The first step is to try to drum up state and federal funds, but they’re hard to come by. During a transportation summit here in 2008, aviation officials urged county commissioners to consider other ways to fund expansion, and they gave examples. Burlington took out a $9 million loan toward getting its airport ready for Honda’s jet manufacturing operation. Concord borrowed money for airport improvements out of its utility fund, something Rowan does not have. Monroe sold bonds.
So far, the Rowan Airport has evolved gradually since its opening in the 1930s. In contrast, Concord Regional Airport opened in 1994 with a 5,500-foot runway, now extended to 7,400 feet. According to Concord city officials, aircraft there total nearly $121 in value, and the airport’s annual economic impact is over $175 million.
Rowan has insisted on going it alone on the airport, having the property de-annexed from Salisbury even while expecting city help with water lines. That may come back to haunt the county some day. Several Piedmont general aviation airports have grown into powerful economic drivers, all under the leadership of their cities — Monroe, Concord, Hickory, Statesville. RUQ has considerable catching up to do, and it’s up to commissioners to make it happen. They have a vision for the airport’s future. Let’s hope their plan works.