Airport Looks Ahead to 2014 Opens
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Back-to-back U.S. Open golf championships are scheduled in 2014, but from the standpoint of the Moore County Airport Authority, the time is already here.
Airport Director Ron Maness outlined almost $10 million in improvements needed to take full economic advantage of the twin tournaments to highlight the Sandhills region in three years.
"We've got a rare opportunity here," said Maness in a presentation to the Moore County Board of Commissioners at a Jan. 13 budget retreat at the Senior Enrichment Center.
What the airport does not have is funding to cover the cost of expanding the general aviation ramp, extending runways and making other improvements.
Federal grants in million-dollar lump sums, supplemented by state and local matches, have been discontinued since the airport lost airline passenger service in 2002.
Between 1990 and 2009 the airport received $24.6 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The state added another $2 million, bringing the total to $26.7 million. The county provided a 5 percent match exceeding $1.3 million during this period.
However, the airport is otherwise self-supporting and receives no operational costs from the county.
The airport continues to receive some FAA funding along with grants from the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Division of Aviation, but not in the multi-million-dollar range. There is the prospect for a $2.5 million grant from NCDOT for the ramp expansion, but Carol Thomas, airport assistant director, said the grant won't be awarded until bids are in hand and the exact cost is known.
Maness said these improvements are critical needs if the county expects to reap the greatest economic benefit from the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open in 2014.
"This is going to be huge for the community," Maness said.
Maness said that the airport was pushed to capacity handling air traffic in 2005, when the U.S. Open was held at Pinehurst. And that was just the one men's championship.
During the seven days of the 2005 championship, the airport handled 3,200 flights. During the May, June and July period before, during and after the tourney, the airport had 7,700 flights, contrasted with the average number of 2,370 for a normal May, June and July.
More than 15,000 passengers traveled through the area in that one week in 2005. Among them were Fortune 500 corporate executives, including Lowe's and Nike.
"We were competing with Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport," Maness commented.
Ramp capacity is limited, requiring the towing of aircraft back and forth during the tourney. Maness said this raised safety issues and was labor intensive.
"We lost time because we were parking aircraft nose to tail," Maness said.
Maness said the airport needs to double ramp capacity and extend runway length to 6,500 feet, the minimum recommended by NCDOT
Despite the expected economic impact, the U.S. Open will entail considerable operational expense for the airport.
The estimated FAA costs of $143,000 include operation of a temporary FAA control tower for two weeks (just one week in 2005), a mobile facility and personnel costs for at least six controllers. In 2005 motel rooms were all occupied in Moore County, and the airport had to find rooms for control tower personnel as far away as Laurinburg.
It was estimated that the airport has financial obligations of almost $500,000, including $217,000 in U.S. Open costs and $252,000 for replacement equipment.
"This airport is the economic gateway to the county," Maness said.
Maness said he recognized the county's tight financial situation but said the sluggish economy has also had a negative effect on the airport. For example, fuel sales have dropped 56 percent in the past two years. Fuel sales are a major source of income for the airport. Other sources of income are hangar and storage rentals, aircraft fees, flight training, commercial service and business tenants.
To save operational costs, the airport has reduced staffing to seven full-time and 14 part-time personnel and has reduced operating hours.
"We are as lean as we can possibly be at this point," he said, crediting Carol Thomas for much of those savings.
The retreat is held for information purposes, and the commissioners do not vote on budget or other issues during such work sessions.
However, they were not unsympathetic to the airport dilemma.
"This county should be proud of the outstanding job you do," Commissioner Jimmy Melton said. "We've got to find the money somewhere."
Maness expressed his conviction that "down the road, it will pay for itself."
Accompanying Maness and Thomas were Airport Authority chairman John Owen, vice-chairman Mike Nash and member Don DeLauter.
Contact Florence Gilkeson @email@example.com.
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