Emotions are sizzling over a plan to extend the Macon County Airport runway over Cherokee burial grounds and artifacts.
At an Airport Authority meeting last week in Franklin resident Selma Sparks said it is disrespectful to the Cherokee.
Airport board member Harold Corbin balked at that statement, saying the Cherokee didn’t make a big deal about artifacts when the casino was being built. Corbin added that there are artifacts all over Macon County and that just as many can be found on his farm as at the airport site.
Resident Alex Hawkins, who said he lives “at the end of the runway,” also disagreed with the project, saying it is unnecessary to extend the runway for economic development because there is no industry coming here.
An archaeological assessment commissioned by the Airport Authority in preparation for the runway expansion called the site one of the more significant archaeological areas in the state.
But Airport Authority Attorney Joe Collins said that is an opinion, and the airport board doesn’t think the site is as significant as the archaeologist said it was. There are an estimated 300 to 400 Cherokee burials at the site, according to the assessment.
At the request of the Eastern Band, none of the burials will be removed. Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks said someone’s final resting place should not be tampered with. The question is what to do with the other artifacts littering the site.
The Airport Authority has agreed to excavate 25 percent of the artifacts from the project site, but the tribe wants 100 percent of the artifacts removed. Otherwise those artifacts could be destroyed, and with them clues to early life.
Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said 100 percent of the artifacts cannot be removed because it would cost too much.
The Airport Authority has contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill to recover the artifacts for $535,000.
The 4,400-foot runway will be extended by 600 feet. The Macon County Airport Authority claims the extension is necessary to make the runway safer.
Gregory said a husband and wife died in an airplane crash at the airport about 10 years ago because the runway wasn’t long enough for them to land safely.
“Which is more valuable, an artifact or a life?” Gregory asked.
Economic development is not the driving factor behind the runway extension, but is a side benefit, said Gregory.
Hicks questions whether the runway extension is actually needed.
“I believe the case has not been made that the airport expansion is necessary or even feasible,” the chief said in a statement.
Project engineer Eric Rysdon with WK Dickson of Charlotte said he hopes construction on the extended runway can begin this summer.
Fight could move to county commissioners
While the Macon County Airport Authority isn’t budging for now, county commissioners may have some say in how the project moves forward. The runway expansion will be funded partially with county tax dollars.
The entire project cost with archaeology included is expected to be around $3.3 million — with 90 percent of the funding coming from the N.C DOT Division of Aviation, and 10 percent from a county match.
Gregory said the county committed the match money years ago.
Commissioner Bob Simpson agreed the match money has already been committed but said those funds could possibly be taken away from the project.
Gregory said he doesn’t know how it would affect the project to lose the county’s match.
Simpson doesn’t necessarily advocate taking away the funds but said he would like to see a compromise worked out with Cherokee.
Two ideas Simpson has are to have Cherokee fund 100 percent of the artifact recovery. But Hicks said he opposes that idea, saying it is up to the county to cover the archaeology costs.
“It’s not EBCI’s responsibility,” said Hicks. “They need to do the right thing. Whether it’s the county or the Airport Authority.”
Another idea Simpson has is for Cherokee to make an economic investment in Macon County by marking the significant archaeological sites and making them a tourist attraction. In exchange, the county would not proceed with the runway extension.
Simpson said it is important that something is decided quickly because the Airport Authority is in danger of losing the grants if it doesn’t use them soon.
Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale and Commissioner Brian McClellan said they could not comment on the project until they have all the facts.
The Airport Authority is presenting the project to county commissioners at the March 9 commission meeting.