JEFFERSON-The Ashe County Airport could soon get another big-time upgrade that could allow it to handle much larger aircraft than it can right now.
All the county will have to do is pitch in $1 for every $9 the state is willing to spend.
That’s according to Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick, who said grant funding could pay for the lion’s share of a planned $2.7 million resurfacing upgrade to the Ashe County Airport. In that arrangement, the county would pay $270,000 to match more than $2.4 million in state or federal funding.
“Not only would they be repaving it, but also strengthening it so that dual-axled planes can land there,” Yearick said.
Right now, the maximum aircraft weight the runway can handle is 12,500-pounds, according to James Moose, a project engineer for Charlotte-based AVCON, Inc., an engineering planning and consulting firm. If county commissioners approve the proposed upgrade, the runway will be able to take aircraft up to 45,000-pounds.
Yearick said the proposal has been added to the agenda for the commissioners’ next meeting on Nov. 16.
Years of work
Ashe County Airport is a county-owned, public use facility. It came under Ashe County control in July of 2009 and was previously owned and managed by Marvin Stump.
Sitting at an elevation of nearly 3,200-feet above sea level, it’s the highest airport in North Carolina – Yearick trumpets that fact as a major plus because the runway allows pilots to climb to cruising altitude with less fuel than runways that are lower in elevation – and houses more than 30 aircraft in 17 hangars.
And a consulting report issued in 2012 by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division said the airport is responsible for more than $32 million per year in “total economic impact,” and affects some 220 county jobs, and provided more than $220,000 per year in tax revenue from airplanes and hangars housed at the site.
It’s also recently had a major upgrade in recent years. A massive runway lengthening project, which first began in October of 2011 and was completed last year, increased the available runway space at the airport by more than 1,000-feet.
As of June 2015, the estimated construction costs of the airport amounted to around $13 million with a county match of 10 percent which is equal to $1.3 million.
Original runway is aging
If a costly infrastructure upgrade was just completed at the airport, why do we need to consider this runway project? Moose said the majority of the airport’s runway – the original 4,300 feet of tarmac available prior to the lengthening project – is between 15 and 20 years old. That’s pushing the asphalt’s recommended lifespan of two decades, he said.
And that upgrade wasn’t tackled at the same time as the lengthening project because of the cost – nearly $3 million – that would have been added to that already costly campaign.
“If money wasn’t an object, absolutely it would have been a good idea to do it all at once,” Moose said. “But you work within your funding limitations.”
He said the state recently approached AVCON about the possibility of using some of its remaining dollars to fund the majority of the planned upgrade, and he pitched the idea to Yearick who agreed to put the proposal before the board of commissioners.
“Realistically, this type of runway work is something that I was already thinking about,” Yearick said. “And I wasn’t looking forward to it due to the cost.”
Yearick said the county does receive $150,000 in grant funding yearly – Ashe County adds an additional $16,000 of county taxpayer money to that pot each year – that can be used for projects like the runway upgrade. But those funds must be spent within three years and Yearick said Ashe would never be able to fund the $2.7 million project without putting up much more money of its own.
“I do think it’s a good opportunity,” Moose said. “Especially since the project would be funded through substantial grant dollars.”
Yearick touted the proposal as a way to entice larger, heavier aircraft – the ones that generally make use of runways longer than 5,000-feet – to the airport. That could mean more money from fuel sales and present more opportunity for entrepreneurs to take advantage of increased airport traffic.
If commissioners decide to approve the proposal, Yearick said the board wouldn’t need to dip into its fund balance. He said he’d be able to pull the county’s $270,000 match from its economic development fund.
“This is something once again that other places around us just don’t have,” Yearick said. “Watauga County, for all its advantages, it doesn’t have a decent airport. So you have folks landing here and driving over there. And since this is something we’re going to have to consider in the relatively near future anyway, I think we should take a hard look at this proposal.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.