The county will put up $290,000 as a local match in order to land a $2.5 million grant the airport from the Federal Aviation Administration and N.C. Department of Transportation. The 5,000-foot runway will be widened by 25 feet and be repaved, plus get new lights along the airstrip.
“We’re going to have one of the best airports west of Buncombe; it’s going to be in good shape,” said Miles Gregory, chairman of the Macon County Airport Authority.
Once complete, the Macon airport will have racked up more than $11 million in infrastructure projects during the past four years — of that about $10 million came from state and federal grants and about $1 million from county coffers as a required local match.
The latest round of work will begin by October and be completed sometime in December. The work will be done at night so as not to disrupt air traffic, Gregory said.
Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to provide the matching funds, with Ronnie Haven and Paul Higdon voted against the expense.
Haven said the county should not be funding a project that can’t demonstrate clear economic benefits for the average citizen. Haven has asked for proof that airport improvements are helping the local economy but has received little evidence.
“Did that benefit John Doe out here with a welding shop, or did that benefit Jane Doe with a beauty shop?” Haven said. “There should be some answers.”
Most citizens in the county can’t afford to fly out of the airport, he said, and instead they drive to Atlanta or Asheville to take a plane. Instead, he believes the airport is largely being used by the well-to-do and wealthy vacationers going to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. As a local lodging owner himself, Haven said he’s never had a guest who flew in on a small plane.
“People don’t come in and say ‘I came here on an airplane,’” Haven said. “I’ve never had one of them stay at my motel.”
In addition to funding nearly $1 million for capital projects at the airport during the past few years, county taxpayers subsidize its annual operating costs to the tune of about $40,000 a year.
But the airport is an economic engine that benefits the whole county, not just those who actually use it, according to Gregory.
“It’s an investment as far as we’re concerned,” Gregory said. “We’re getting it up there to be a credible airport in Western North Carolina.”
That in turn will make Macon an attractive hub. The airport is used by visitors heading to Harrah’s — Hank Williams, Jr. used it to arrive at his recent concert there. Local businessmen and homeowners in the Highlands area also use it. It has been touted as an economic driver for tourism and the homebuilding sectors in the county’s economy.
However, the airport’s growth has happened amidst criticism from a broad spectrum of local residents and political leaders for cultural, economic and safety reasons. The runway’s initial expansions was met with concern over the disturbance of Cherokee artifacts on site.
Some neighbors of the airport, located in Iotla Valley, say it’s not the best neighbor either. Since the runway was last expanded, jet traffic and the sound of roaring engines have increased and are impacting the quality of life and rural character they once valued. The imminent brighter lights and a wider runway won’t make the valley anymore peaceful either.
“Some of my neighbors complain that the noise is like living in the middle of Miami,” said Olga Pader, who lives about a mile from the runway. “They need to consider the people who actually live here and are impacted by it.”
Pader said she and other area residents take issue with everything from the sound pollution to the visual impact of the brilliantly white hangars to the safety aspect of having planes flying overhead. The plane crash in 2012 killed five people, and since then, the county has built a new elementary school adjacent to the runway.
Pader said the bowl-shaped Iotla Valley, ringed by mountains, might not be the best site for an ever-expanding airfield.
“There are a lot of safety concerns I have,” Pader said. “It just keeps growing.”