Sanford has been a manufacturing community for over 100 years.
Manufacturing employs 30 percent of our workforce, which exceeds the state and the national average by large margins. Most people know the big manufacturing employers here: Caterpillar, Frontier Spinning, Pilgrim’s and many others. However, what most people may not realize is that what has allowed these companies to build and grow here is the Raleigh Executive Jetport, which serves Lee County.
Our airport is important to businesses of all sizes because it allows these businesses to move people and products more efficiently.
Take Caterpillar as an example. As a Fortune 100 company, Caterpillar is the world’s largest equipment manufacturer and has a plant right here in Sanford that employs about 1,500 people.
Every week, suppliers and dealers fly into the airport to take sales meetings with company staff and see firsthand how Caterpillar builds its equipment.Likewise, Frontier Spinning has been a staple of this community since its founding in Sanford in 1996. As a large textile manufacturing company, they have plants all over the southeastern United States. Having the airport nearby allows them to visit the Sanford plant and quickly be on the move to other plants in the region to make sure their business is running smoothly and efficiently.
And recently, Pilgrim’s, which is one of the largest chicken producers in the United States, signed a $100 million contract expansion with Costco to service the wholesaler’s organic chicken supply needs. That contract added 300 jobs to the county and the presence of the airport, which allows Costco to visit Pilgrim’s plant efficiently, was a determining factor during the contract’s signing.
Each of these businesses are manufacturing industry leaders that call Sanford home, and one of the reasons for that is the resource of the airport. General aviation allows these businesses to reach far-off markets, move products and services more efficiently, and recruit top talent.
Our central location to so many of North Carolina’s resources and amenities is also important for the relationship between Sanford’s economic development and general aviation.
With our proximity to the Research Triangle, our airport hosts professionals from all over the country, including medical professionals, technology executives, life science researchers and university leaders.
I recently spoke with site consultants from Chicago and New York who flew into the airport for a visit to the Research Triangle. Seeing this activity, the developers at Chatham Park, which is a 7,000-plus-acre live-work-play community in the works, used the Raleigh Executive Jetport as a selling tool in its development. Chatham Park is seeking to become the next Research Triangle for our region of North Carolina, and the airport is helping to propel the space to new heights.
Business use and economic development are not the only benefits that general aviation brings to our community. Fort Bragg is the largest military installation in the world and is just about 40 miles away from Sanford. With an avionics shop on the airport grounds, government agencies and military contractors are able to service their equipment maintenance and surveying needs. The military also uses the airport to train pilots and special operations forces.
Small aircraft and airports work closely with hospitals in the Raleigh area to provide emergency medical care; the airport hosts young Eagles and flying clubs to introduce our younger generations to the aviation field; and it serves as the staging ground for inspections and oversight for the Harris Nuclear Power Plant.
As the birthplace of aviation, I know that North Carolina has an appreciation for small community airports. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about infrastructure. As the head of an economic development group, I urge our leaders in Congress to not only focus on our large commercial airports, but also our smaller ones because they serve as a lifeline and crucial economic driver for communities like ours.
Mike Smith is the CEO of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.