Jetport eyes expansion in spite of obstacles

Jan. 08, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

The message from the local airport at a meeting Monday was clear: despite challenges, the airport is growing.

Brad Womble, the new manager of the Raleigh Executive Jetport at Sanford-Lee County, told members of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce during a lunchtime gathering, sponsored by the Chamber's Public Policy Committee, that the airport is looking to expand despite a relatively high property tax rate that has reportedly made some potential customers balk at storing their aircraft locally.

He said the airport has nearly unlimited potential because of its ability to handle large jets, the hundreds of acres surrounding it that are ripe for expansion, and its proximity to Southern Pines and the Triangle, which creates a mix of private, commercial and government interest.

"What hurts us more than anything now is the (Lee County) tax rate," he said. "... One of the biggest complaints I hear is, 'I have this $4 million plane, and Raleigh/Durham is 10, 15 minutes away — and Raleigh has less taxes. Why should I come here?'"

County Manager John Crumpton, who also serves on the board of the Airport Authority, said in response to audience questions that there's no way to create a lower property tax just for the airport. However, Womble said there are ways of countering the tax rate, such as offering cheaper fuel and hangar fees than other local airports offer.

Additionally, a multi-million-dollar project is in the works to strengthen and improve the runway, just in time for the 2014 U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst. The project will be done in three parts, allowing the airport to remain open during two-thirds of the project. Following that, Womble said, the airport might build another hangar if interest improves slightly. He said right now, approximately 15 aircraft are on a waiting list, but the airport wants about 20 before building the hangar, which would hold 18 aircraft.

Discussions are also ongoing about having the airport do maintenance for several state and federal agencies. While nothing's final yet, he said, the airport could land contracts to service all aircraft in use by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in the eastern United States, plus aircraft from the N.C. Forestry Service, the State Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies.

The airport also serves as an important local business hub, officials said. Jerry Pedley, owner of Mertek Solutions, said he uses the facility to visit clients all over the country and can get anywhere he needs to go in just a few hours.

"It's a business tool," he said. "Not everybody sees it like that, but if you hang around there, you see a lot of business activity."

That statement prompted questions about what might be done not only to get more businesses using the airport, but to get more businesses around the airport. Womble said because the closest sewage lines end several miles away, few businesses are interested in setting up shop nearby. And since the county won't expand sewage unless there's something to expand to, he called the issue a double-edged sword.

Crumpton, though, explained the county's predicament with the example of a lift station at the Industrial Park built several years ago for $1.6 million that now sees almost no usage — saying that especially in this bad economy, the county probably wouldn't want to gamble again.

"You build it, but they don't always come," he said.