Over the years Stanly County’s quest for a top-notch airport met continuous funding obstacles before a serendipitous partnership ensured its completion and progression.
The Stanly County Airport ranks among the region’s most valuable assets despite humble beginnings. For a county to remain economically competitive, a general aviation airport is needed to serve and recruit local industry. An airport is deemed a harbinger for growth, prosperity and jobs.
“I see the airport as one of the steadfast cornerstones of the Stanly County economy,” said Ken Swaringen, airport director.
County leaders recognize the airport as essential to Stanly’s future economic development.
“The airport is a key economic development asset,” said County Manager Andy Lucas. “The airport is a best in class general aviation facility. It is a showcase for our community and demonstrates the county’s commitment to making investments in public infrastructure. As such, the airport facility is a key asset in our business recruitment efforts.”
Funding an airport, however, especially one that can accommodate diverse aircraft like corporate jets, requires significant funding few rural counties can afford without federal and state aid.
Before the construction of the existing airport site, Stanly was served by the modest Albemarle airport located at what today is a retail corridor adjacent to the bypass. In the early 1960s local leaders envisioned a more contemporary airport, thus an Airport Authority was born with help from the N.C. General Assembly.
Almost immediately problems with grant funding led to construction delays. It was not until 1979 when the airport opened after two years of obtaining enough funds to extend an initial 3,900-foot runway to 4,400 feet. Charles E. Hopkins was then named airport director, for whom the original terminal building is dedicated.
By the mid-1980s, David Griffin replaced a retiring Cyril Herlocker as airport manager. It was not long into Griffin’s leadership when he recognized the need for more advancements. While a 4,400-foot runway could serve most smaller aircraft, jets required a longer runway. They also needed an Instrument Landing System (ILS) while Stanly fielded a fair-weather facility. These added amenities, however, not only required funding, but large sums of money.
Repeated efforts to raise the necessary funding led to rejections by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Stanly was repeatedly ignored for funding requests, with other more politically-connected counties garnering aviation funding.
No matter how Griffin attempted to persuade federal and state officials that Stanly warranted greater attention, pleas for more money were denied.
In 1987, a chance encounter led to conversations between Griffin and the 145th Tactical Airlift of the Air National Guard (ANG) in Charlotte.
It seems the ANG struggled to find airports suitable for necessary training. Few facilities could accommodate C-130 airplanes. Those that could had obligations that often interfered with the ANG’s objective.
In 1989, the Stanly County Airport struck a deal with the ANG, providing the 145th tactical airlift unit with a guaranteed site for training. In exchange, the ANG ensured the Stanly airport would get the upgrades sought and needed for the heavier C-130s.
Stanly’s location and surrounding topography proved to be advantageous for the partnership.
“Stanly County Airport has and will remain an ideal location for 145 Air Wing training,” said Col. Michael Troy Gerock of the ANG. “Proximity plays a large part of what makes Stanly so desirable. At just 15 minutes away, 145 Air Wing aircraft utilize the least amount of precious time and fuel to arrive at the training location. This maximizes the time aircrews can spend on performing complex training events they need to perfect in order to fly combat operations worldwide.
“The airspace around Stanly County is also unique in that aircraft can accomplish both high and low altitude tactical arrivals and departures,” Gerock said. “This capability can only be found at a few training locations and gives 145 Air Wing crews the ability to effectively prepare for combat missions. Stanly County is one of the few locations with a drop zone capable of accomplishing actual heavy equipment and container delivery system airdrops providing hard to get training for both pilots and loadmasters.”
The 145 Air Wing’s air traffic control squadron, based at the airport, provides an extra level of training and realism by controlling aircraft during these robust training operations, he added.
As a result of Stanly’s partnership with the ANG, military funding poured into the airport.
Stanly got its runway lengthened to 5,500 feet and widened to 100 feet. It also obtained the coveted ILS as well as an aviational weather monitoring system.
The ANG’s presence at the airport also contributed to the addition of a fire department at the facility.
Over a 20-year period, some $60 million poured into the county airport. ANG pumped in $40 million. Even the FAA tossed in $15 million. The state and local government provided the remainder.
Because of all the upgrades and its partnership with the ANG, the airport generates an economic impact of $100 million annually, according to an economic impact study.
The ANG staff and visitors frequent our restaurants and hotels, generating sales tax and tourism tax revenue. ANG facilities provide a training ground for visiting troops from other areas of the U.S. and other countries. These troops typically frequent many of Stanly’s retail establishments.
As the airport and ANG partnership evolves, there exists an opportunity for more benefits.
Stanly’s airport, along with its nearly 1,000 acres, is poised for new growth. As the military introduces the newer C-17, which replaces the retiring C-130 workhorse, there will be a need for additional upgrades since the newer planes carry a heavier load. Also, the runway will be required to convert to concrete instead of asphalt.
“The 145 Air Wing is working hand in hand with Stanly County Airport to ensure tactical airlift training success,” Gerock said. “The C-17, in particular, presents several opportunities to increase capabilities around the airport. The C-17 requires longer and wider runways and taxiways than the C-130. As a result, we are working to widen and strengthen the existing assault runway in order to make it C-17 capable. In addition, lengthening and widening the primary runway will be necessary for C-17s to accomplish touch and go landings, greatly increasing training throughout,” Gerock said.
These runway improvements would allow C-17s to accomplish the maximum day, night and assault landing training via complex tactical approaches and departures, he added.
“With these improvements would also come the increased utilization of Stanly County’s ground training areas by providing the ability for C-17s to carry larger cargo and fuel loads. These improvements would benefit not only the 145 Air Wing, but other C-17 and mobility aircraft along the eastern U.S.,” Gerock said.
Recently, the airport benefitted from a partnership between the ANG and the Office of State Fire Marshal. Their association led to the decision to make Stanly’s airport as a state emergency training center, only the second such facility in the nation.
Stanly’s airport was chosen as the training site for several reasons: includes a burn building, confined space, trench rescue and structural collapse training facility needed for this type of specialized training; centrally located and sits near various types of terrain needed for training — lakes, the Rocky River, Morrow Mountain State Park and the Uwharrie National Forest; proximity to a FEMA warehouse; and near the state’s largest city, Charlotte.
“We look forward to the potential growth from the recently announced N.C. Emergency Training Center. That is a huge development for the airport, Stanly County and North Carolina,” Swaringen said.
There is spirited optimism that the military associations will lead to other opportunities.
“Stanly County’s strategic position in the state as it relates to air space and our military connection, provides a unique opportunity to position ourselves as research and development hub for UAS/UAV (drone) type technologies,” Lucas said. “Stanly County has been participating for several years in state level planning meetings associated with the further development of a UAS/UAV research corridor.”
In addition to the mutually-beneficial partnerships, the airport remains committed to improving its general aviation and fiscal independence.
Most enterprise funds, including airports, typically cost more than they generate. Stanly’s airport, however, fares better than most.
Stanly typically appropriates about $300,000 annually for the airport, but it actually costs about one-third of that amount. The difference is offset by fuel sales, state grants, hangar and office space lease revenue at the terminal.
Along with the airport’s continued partnership with ANG, Swaringen said the airport must plan effectively and diversify development to bolster its civilian aviation.
“We would like to see development of the commercial general aviation business here with the basing of larger corporate aircraft but that does not solely rest on the airport,” Swaringen said. “Businesses have to have a sound business reason to make the decision to base a corporate aircraft here and we as the county need to find ways to make that attractive beyond just what the airport can offer.”
County leaders are exploring the expense of building more hangars at the airport. At the present, the idea seems to be cost prohibitive given the time it would take for Stanly to recoup its investment despite a waiting list for renters.
“We are working hard to address some of the deficiencies on the civilian general aviation side such as rental hangar space,” Swaringen said. “That is an area that all GA airports are dealing with and is key to bringing in based customers and airport growth.”
About 40 airplanes are stored at the airport with a collective tax value of nearly $2 million, which equates to about $13,500 per year in property tax revenue. The average tax value of a plane stored in Stanly is around $51,000.
“If the airport is able to provide hangar space for a jet type plane such as a Cessna Citation or Gulfstream then the tax value goes up substantially as does the county’s return on investment,” Lucas said.