Two weeks after receiving notification of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved of the designated 10 percent grant match of $232,634 during its regular scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10. In order to receive the grant, given and allocated out by the NCDOT Division of Aviation, Macon County and the state each had to pitch in 10 percent of the total project cost of $2,326,340. The grant match will be appropriated from the county’s fund balance.
The size of the grant is warranted due to the fact that the parking apron has not seen any improvements since the 1970s, according to officials with the Division of Aviation and Milles Gregory, chairman of Macon County’s Airport Authority.
One citizen spoke out against the measure while advocating for a possible privatization of the airport during the public commenting period.
“I believe it is time for this board to take a careful look at continuing the expenditures to the airport,” said Vic Drummond in speaking out against subsidizing Macon County’s airport. Drummond also criticized the NCDOT for citing a 2006 study that suggested Macon County’s airport supports 122 jobs and has a $7.9 million total annual impact on North Carolina’s economy. “It was written by Daniel Findley, a student at North Carolina State as his thesis for his Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering. This economic study was written by a student in civil engineering, not economics,” said Drummond.
Gregory attended the commissioners meeting and came before the board to encourage them to approve the match, and gave reasons why the airport is crucial to the future of Macon County’s economy. “We feel like the airport is so very important to this county,” said Gregory. Gregory pointed out that the 24 counties in North Carolina without an airport are at a major disadvantage in terms of economic security.
Gregory argued that the airport supports commerce and second homebuyers from Highlands, among other things. He stated that people from Highlands who use the airport bring a significant amount of revenue to the county and help keep the county’s tax rate low. “It benefits all of us,” he said. Gregory said later that because of the improvements to the airport, particularly the runway extension, business leaders in Macon County can now use the airport for business purposes.
“Caterpillar used to have to fly down to Toccoa, Georgia to travel here,” said Gregory. “Mr. Phil Drake uses it [airport] heavily. He’s got over 600 employees in this county and that airport is a tremendous asset because his people travel all around the United States,” he said in an effort to show why the runaway extension and future improvements to the facility are important. Prior to the extension, Drake and Caterpillar could not use the airport.
Gregory answered commissioners’ questions about the cost of the project, after Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin asked him if the project could be completed with less money. “It’s going to be very expensive to do this project, because we got to take all of the asphalt up that is there now, and fill out a new base and put blacktop over top of it, so it’s going to be very expensive,” stated Gregory. “If we could do it for $50,000 then I would be all for it,” he said.
Richard Rhodes, of Rhodes Brothers Paving, testified that the project cost is justified. Rhodes told commissioners that capping the parking apron would be a temporary solution to a long-term problem, and that the two million dollar project will ensure that the parking apron is safe and viable for future use. Rhodes, who is also a pilot, said that completely repaving the apron is necessary as the current condition of the apron poses safety hazards, and a short term fix will inevitably lead to heavier costs for the county in the future.
Commissioners agreed with Gregory and Rhodes in regards to the economic development assets of the airport, and the need to improve the facility’s parking apron. Commissioner Ron Haven told fellow board members that he personally visited the airport to ask questions and to ascertain the parking apron’s condition. Haven, along with every other commissioner, is convinced that the project is long overdue. Commissioners agreed that the airport grant match is an investment, and expressed their hopes for a self-sufficient airport facility in the future.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale commented that the runway extension and other improvements to the airport in recent years have paid off by increasing the economic vitality of Macon County and the surrounding counties. Beale noted that without the airport, the county would not have access to the MAMA helicopter; the Mountain Area Medical Lift which transports citizens to Mission Hospital following serious accidents. Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, liaison to the Airport Authority, said, “Sometimes people look at economic development and say ‘Where are all the jobs you brought in?’ Sometimes you got to look at it as where are all the jobs you didn’t lose,” said Kuppers.
Commissioner Beale recommended for the Airport Authority to look into measuring the exact amount of traffic that comes through the airport, rather than simply measuring fuel sales, to get a better estimate into the amount of commerce the airport attracts.