By Adam Bell
Operating in the shadow of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the region’s general aviation airports can be easy to overlook. But a recent state study casts them in a new light.
They are economic powerhouses. The 10 publicly owned general aviation airports in the Charlotte region have an annual economic impact of nearly a half-billion dollars and support more than 4,000 jobs, according to the study for the state Transportation Department.
Some airports thrive in part by catering to certain sectors, from NASCAR in Concord to aerospace in Monroe and the North Carolina Air National Guard in Albemarle. The airports also provide a base for training and personal use of aircraft.
In addition to their $491 million economic impact, they account for $16.6 million in state and local taxes. Statewide, North Carolina’s 63 general aviation airports combine for a $2 billion economic impact, the study stated.
To be sure, the economic impact from North Carolina’s nine commercial airports, $23.9 billion, is much greater than general aviation’s impact. Charlotte Douglas alone accounts for $12.5 billion.
The combined commercial and general aviation totals represent 6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, the report found.
As the economy slowly improves, general aviation airports say they are poised for growth. For instance, companies in Concord and Monroe cited their airports as one of the reasons they decided to further invest in the area.
“The airport is just a huge asset to running our business here,” said Michael Zimmer, president of aerospace company Cyril Bath in Monroe. “Monroe’s airport is right behind our factory, and we’re able to fly in and out of here on a regular basis.”
The study’s numbers are conservative estimates.
They depend in part on surveys completed by airport tenants and major users, said Daniel Findley, who led the research on the report by the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at N.C. State University. If a company did not respond, they were not counted for the estimates.
In the Charlotte area, the economic impact from general aviation airports increased by 62 percent since the previous report in 2006, although Findley said some of the increase might be attributed to better survey responses.
Economic impact totals include spending by companies doing business at airports, companies supporting that work and employees of both types of companies spending money in the local economy.
“The report points out that the airports mean jobs, and provide a vital link into communities,” said Bobby Walston, deputy director of airports for N.C. DOT’s Division of Aviation. “I think people will be surprised” by the totals.
In South Carolina, the state’s last economic impact study for Rock Hill-York County Airport was in 2007, and showed the city-owned airport had a total economic impact of $6.9 million. Airport Administrator Eric Ramsdell expects that those numbers would have grown since then, and noted the number of aircraft based at the site has steadily grown by 5 to 6 percent a year.
Multitasking in Monroe
In 1996, Jeff Moore started a flight club at Charlotte-Douglas that he expanded into flight training in 2000 and then rental and charter service. Now his FlyCarolina operates out of several airports including Gastonia, Concord, Monroe and Rock Hill.
Even during the recession, Moore said business remained “respectable” as companies of varying sizes continue to charter planes.
One client is Zimmer, the head of Cyril Bath, which designs and makes machines used to form airplane skins in Monroe. The airport is so appealing that Cyril Bath is investing $2.5 million more in its Monroe operation, despite the lure of Charleston, where a major customer is based.
Zimmer praised the convenience of the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport, where he multitasks by using charters flights for business and piloting FlyCarolina planes for personal use.
The Division of Aviation cited Monroe for its strong ties to the aerospace industry. Chris Platé, Monroe’s executive director of economic development and aviation, said the airport also raises its profile by hosting an annual Warbirds air show that has grown into one of the biggest events of its kind on the East Coast.
Military aid in Stanly
In the mid-1980s, David Griffin’s chance encounter with an N.C. Air National Guard recruiter helped change the Stanly County Airport’s future.
Griffin, the airport director, said that meeting prompted other talks and led to the 145th Airlift Wing, which is based at Charlotte Douglas, to hold most of its training at the Albemarle airport. The military covered about half the cost of lengthening and strengthening the runway so it could handle C-130 aircraft used in training.
Other miliary units, including with the Air Force, Army and Special Forces, also train there.
“People don’t realize all of the military stuff (that goes on) out here,” Griffin said. “They are a part of our family and a big part of our community.”
Coffee, tea and NASCAR
Concord Regional Airport has long been known as NASCAR’s airport. It helps that Charlotte Motor Speedway and most NASCAR race teams call the area home. NASCAR has a hangar at the airport too, Aviation Director Rick Cloutier said.
While racing represents a significant niche, he said other businesses also use the site, including S&D Coffee and Tea.
In November, the Concord company announced plans for a $47 million expansion across the street from the airport. S&D will take over two buildings for production, warehousing and other work, marketing director John Buckner said.
The move will create about 200 jobs over five years. For S&D, the airport’s convenience “was definitely a factor” in the decision not to expand elsewhere, Buckner said.
A new start in Hickory
In Hickory, last year marked the first time its airport operations have broken even, Assistant City Manager Warren Wood said.
The city had taken over daily operations at Hickory Regional Airport in late 2011 in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings for the company that used to run the airport.
In the past year, 10 additional aircraft called the facility home, a mix of private and corporate planes, Airport Director Terry Clark said.
With the management changes, and local companies such as Commscope and Hickory Springs regularly using the airport, Wood is optimistic about the airport’s ability to keep and attract business to Hickory. “It’s always a selling point whenever we try to recruit companies,” he said.