Macon County airport lands federal runway paving dollars

More than $2 million in mostly federal dollars will pay for repaving the runway at the Macon County Airport, likely boosting a surge of business-class jets now landing there since an extension of the runway was added last year.

The state and county will each have to kick in a 10 percent match, while federal funds will comprise 80 percent of the project cost.

Macon County’s airport is the nearest airport to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort that can handle small corporate jets. Additionally, well-heeled residents with second or third homes in the Highlands-Cashiers area visit this region via Macon’s airport.

“This is another tool in our economic tool belt,” Tommy Jenkins, the county’s economic director, said Tuesday. “We’ve got an asset in the airport that a lot of surrounding counties don’t have. We’ve got to make sure we take care of it.”

Federal aviation dollars come in to the state through the N.C. Division of Aviation, which then disperses the funds based on need to airports in the state.

Macon County, again using a combination of federal and state funding along with a county match, spent $4.5 million building a 600-foot extension and a 300-foot grass safety area over the past two years.

Work at the airport has been a source of controversy, with critics citing the large cost for relatively few users and the impact of the growing airport on the rural Iotla Valley off N.C. 28. But the biggest controversy came when Indian graves were discovered in the path of the runway extension. The county reached agreements with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, allowing work to move forward following an archaeological excavation.

Miles Gregory, the airport board’s chairman, said Tuesday that he believes what sealed the funding deal was a firsthand visit in September to the airport by N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti. The state bigwig was in the area to attend a bridge naming ceremony for former state Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County.

“The runway is all in pieces,” Gregory said. “It’s been in bad repair for a long time. (Conti) just shook his head, and said he’d do what he could to help us.”

Bids for the repaving project likely will be let this spring.

New airport hangars are in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a drilled well right now. It wouldn’t put out a lit match,” Gregory said. “I’m exaggerating of course, but we could use that water.”

A statewide economic impact study conducted five years ago indicated that Macon County’s airport had an approximate $7.9 million a year total annual impact on North Carolina and supports more than 122 jobs.

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