There is a project in the works to expand the width of the runway from 75 feet to 100 feet and repave the surface. The project is estimated to cost as much as $3 million and draw from local, state and federal funds, leaving Macon County on the hook for about 10 percent of the price.
Proponents of the expansion say the money would be well spent, making the airport safer and attracting more visitors by air, which will boost the local economy.
“The planes are bringing in folks to Highlands, Cashiers, Maggie Valley,” said Neil Hoppe, fixed base operation manager at the runway. “Seasonal tourists and a lot of well-to-do people have vacation homes in those areas.”
The Macon County Airport is centrally located for popular vacation home sites, tourist destinations and attractions like Harrah’s Casino and Resort in Cherokee. Hoppe, who leases plane parking and sells fuel at the airport, said many residents don’t realize the pluses of having a quality airport in the county. It is a boon for everything from the real estate market to local employers like Caterpillar and Drake Software.
Macon County taxpayers have contributed nearly $850,000 to airport operations and improvements since 2008.
Of that, $230,000 has been in the form of annual operating subsidies from the county to the tune of about $40,000 a year. The county has put up another $617,000 for capital contributions like runway expansion and paving.
Although still not a done deal, the widening would be the second major runway expansion in a matter of years. The Macon County Airport Authority recently finished a widely controversial project that lengthened the airport’s runway by 600 feet, bringing it to 5,000 feet long. That project cost roughly $4.5 million and was paid for with a combination of federal, state and county money.
But it attracted criticism from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians because of the archeological sites and burials it threatened to disturb. Neighbors also spoke against the projects because they don’t necessarily like the idea of more plane traffic over their rural community.
This time around, the project hasn’t met with the same pushback, so far, said Miles Gregory, chairman of the airport authority. Rather, he said the focus is on the perceived economic benefits.
“It’s a vital part of economic development here in Macon County,” Gregory said. “It attracts jobs, business and visitors.”
Hoppe agrees. Since the runway was lengthened, Hoppe said air traffic has noticeably increased. He said reaching the 5,000-foot mark opened the airport up to charter services that use jet planes, which otherwise avoided the short runway because of insurance limitations and safety concerns. That traffic was instead diverted to Asheville’s airport.
Widening the runway would supposedly make Macon County’s airport safer, too. The expansion would add 12.5 feet on each side, allowing for more maneuverability, and incorporate brighter lighting and a better runway surface.
“That’s a safety factor,” Hoppe said. “Would you rather drive on a narrow highway or wide highway?”
The project is part of decade-long improvement plan for the airport, said Gregory. In addition to the runway extension three years ago, the airport also embarked on a costly repaving project for the entire runway.
He said the project will be put out to bid as early as August, but still needs the full support of the Macon County Commission. If approved, the work should take about two months to finish and Gregory says it can be completed as early as December.
The commissioners already gave the green light and funded a project study and engineering work. But the county will be on the hook for a lot more if commissioners vote in favor of the full expansion.
However, Gregory was optimistic they would come through.
“They have already supported us,” Gregory said, referring to previous projects the county has approved. “We need to stay alert and spend a little money to keep it as safe as we can keep it.”
A plane crash at the Macon county Airport killed five people in 2012.
Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who represents Highlands, said not all members of the commission are in support of the runway project, although he is. He acknowledged the airport is used regularly by many homeonwers in Highlands. But he said it is also used by the county as a whole, and the region for that matter.
“I’m in favor of it,” Tate said. “I think the Macon County Airport is a fantastic asset for Macon County. It’s obviously one of the nicest, if not the nicest, west of Asheville in North Carolina.”