Wednesday, June 12, 2024

NC trend: Small N.C. airports land $100 million for expansions

Situated on a two-lane road between Stoneville and Reidsville, Rockingham County’s Shiloh Airport is a polar opposite to bustling Triangle and Charlotte airports.

It has one runway surrounded by airplane hangars and a small one-story terminal. But the facility for private planes is about to receive a $7 million windfall from the 2021-22 state budget.

The amount exceeds the $2.7 million assessed tax value of the property, which is owned by Rockingham County government. State funding for nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport was $10 million.

Shiloh Airport manager Mike Brooks says county leaders are working with a consultant to determine how to spend the grant. “Right now we have no idea what we’re going to do.” 

About 15 general-aviation airports are receiving nearly $100 million for unspecified capital improvements. Senate leader Phil Berger requested the money for Shiloh, which is in his district, a spokesman confirms.

About 45 other publicly owned general-aviation airports did not receive funding.

State Rep. Brenden Jones, a Columbus County Republican who chairs the House’s transportation appropriations committee, says lawmakers “looked at the areas that we thought could really benefit” from a major investment in the local airport. 

Jones considers airports a critical economic development tool for rural communities looking to land a manufacturing facility. Corporate executives want a direct flight to check on their operations, rather than having to drive an hour after flying into a large airport, he says. “This is one of the pegs in the puzzle that we’ve got to have.”

Columbus County’s public airport, near Whiteville, is a refueling spot for planes headed up and down the East Coast. The county’s population declined about 13% in the past decade to about 50,600.

“These little airports are used a lot more than we think about,” Jones says. “It’s the rest stop of the sky. We want to make them pretty and attractive.”

People who fly only on commercial airlines might be unaware that general-aviation facilities are in high demand among those willing to pay the extra cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has made some hesitant to travel on packed airline flights, making private planes a popular alternative.

Rockingham County airport has about 30 people on a waiting list for hangar space to park their planes, and Brooks receives daily calls asking about it. Some callers are from as far away as Raleigh — 100 miles from Rockingham — and willing to make the drive for an available hangar.

Bob Heuts, director of RaleighExec Jetport in Sanford, says corporate prospects often ask about general-aviation airports. Pfizer and other major Sanford employers are frequent users.

The Sanford airport is getting $9 million. It hasn’t decided how it will use the money but has about a dozen pending construction projects. The airport is seeing high demand for aircraft hangars, and it wants to purchase neighboring property. 

“We have a lot of options out there and certainly some needs,” Heuts says. 

The Sanford airport is 35 miles from downtown Raleigh. Heuts says the name is appropriate because the smaller facility helps ease demand for private aircraft traffic at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

“As much as we can move general aviation out of RDU, it opens up more time slots and availability for commercial” flights there, he says. 

This year’s grants continue a trend of more state money for small airports from the legislature and N.C. Department of Transportation. “The state has done an outstanding job of funding aviation,” Heuts says, and it’s “upped the funding seemingly every year.”

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