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Drake takes Macon airport under its wing

Drake takes Macon airport under its wing

Drake Enterprises is spreading its wings further into the community as it takes over management of the Macon County Airport. 

Under the new subsidiary Macon Air LLC, Drake assumed responsibility for airport operations as of Oct. 1 after its former management entity — Franklin Aviation, led by Neil Hoppe and Peggy Milton — decided to retire. Hoppe and Milton had managed the airport for 20 years under a contract with the county. 

Macon County Airport Authority approved a new contract during an Aug. 28 meeting to lease the airport to Macon Air from Oct. 1, 2018 through Dec. 31, 2023, with the option to extend the terms of the lease for three additional five-year periods. Drake could potentially operate the airport through December 2038.

Drake Enterprises is one of the largest employers in Macon County with more than 1,000 employees working for 18 different businesses under the Drake umbrella, including an accounting and income tax software company, high-speed internet business, printing press, performing arts center, golf course and a Christian book store. 

CEO Phil Drake has been a big supporter of the airport, flying his company planes and jets from Macon County to cities all over the country for business meetings. But why would he want to add a small county airport to his portfolio?

“One reason is we own our own hangar here and we have for a couple of years. We fly in and out of here a lot,” Drake said. “We felt like we could afford to make the investments needed to improve operations — the county has invested a lot into the airport but they’re not willing to invest additional dollars for operations out of the taxpayers’ budget.”

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The county was responsible for maintenance and mowing costs at the airport under the old contract with Franklin Aviation, but this time around the county negotiated a contract that put those responsibilities on the new FBO (fixed-base operator). The move will save the county taxpayers between $60,000 to $100,000 a year. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the citizens of Macon County to have more services provided at the airport with a substantial savings in the process,” said Commissioner Karl Gillespie, who also serves as the liaison to the Macon County Airport Authority. 

Sometimes maintenance and mowing needs would get put on the backburner at the airport because of county funding constraints, but Drake thinks it’s important to keep the airport well maintained just like it’s a main entrance to the county. 

“As a corporate citizen, I felt like we could step up to make that upfront investment needed,” Drake said. “You get to see a nice welcome sign coming into Macon from Georgia — we want the same kind of entrance when people land here.”

 

Improvements

Just two months into the contract, Macon Air has already made several much-needed improvements, including mowing the fields around the airport, installing new LED lighting and bringing in fuel trucks to make refueling quicker and easier for pilots. 

“There was a lot of deferred maintenance when we took over,” said Airport Manager David Phillips, who has been Drake’s pilot since 2001. “We’re changing out the high power light fixtures to LED lighting to cut down on electricity costs and we’ve taken over mowing the entire property.”

With a new control cabinet installed, pilots can now control the runway lighting at night from the air, which increases safety protocols. As someone who has had to land a plane at Macon airport four times without lights, Phillips said that is a major benefit for pilots. 

Before bringing in fuel trucks the airport only had a single-point refueling station, making it cumbersome for smaller jets and nearly impossible for larger jets to refuel at the airport. Refueling was also time-consuming — the single refueling station can pump 18 gallons a minute while the trucks can pump over 200 gallons per minute. 

Phillips said they also have plans to remodel and repaint the hangar right next door to the main building so it can be better utilized. They are also working on installing a new security system, a new entrance sign and improving the airport’s internet service. The airport has been operating on an old DSL connection, but now is getting high-speed internet through another Drake company — BalsamWest. A new website for the airport is also in the works to keep people better informed about services, flight schedules and current weather patterns. 

Phillips and Drake’s other pilot, Gwen Lassez, have flown all over the country and have seen just about every size and quality of airport to compare to Macon’s facilities. 

“This is definitely one of the nicest we go to, so we’re in great shape,” Phillips said. 

“Twice in the past month I’ve heard people say this is one of the most beautiful airports in the country,” Lassez said. “They love the friendly people here and the location.”

 

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CEO of Drake Enterprises Phil Drake, (from left), Drake pilots Gwen Lassez, David Phillips and Josh Drake stand inside their hangar at Macon County Airport. Jessi Stone photo

 

Providing services

Under the contract, Macon Air is responsible for airport upkeep and providing services. Those services include selling fuel, providing maintenance services for planes and renting hangar space. Macon airport only charges a ramp fee for large jets to land if they don’t purchase fuel there, but most other airports charge a fee for all planes to land regardless or whether they buy fuel. Phillips said Asheville charges him about $200 to land and places like Baltimore are even more expensive. 

“This has always been a very friendly place to land and we want to continue to make it a friendly place to land,” Drake said. “We want them to come back and buy gas from us so we don’t charge them to land.”

Phillips and Drake are also looking to do flight training at the airport. They have pilots available to do the training but they’re working on renting a C-172 airplane for training purposes and also want to get a C-182 to rent out at the airport. The former FBO had those training planes but sold them when their contract was up.

“We should have everything in place by January for people who want the training,” Phillips said. “Flight instruction is big right now.”

The volume of planes currently landing in Macon varies, but Phillips said Thursday and Sunday are the busiest days with people flying in and out for the weekend. On those days usually at least three of the airport’s seven employees are needed to manage the traffic. The existing hangars can hold 25 to 28 airplanes and there is a waiting list for hangar space. Some pilots choose to secure their plane outside if they can’t get hangar space, but Drake said his long-term goal is to add more hangars.

Drake said he realizes taking over the airport isn’t going to be a cash-cow operation, especially at first, but he’s willing to put in the work to make it a viable enterprise and an asset to Macon County. 

“It was an asset to us before we started operating it. We are having to invest dollars out here to get it up to where I think it should be, but that’s OK — we will benefit from those dollars and so will others,” he said. 

Under the new contract, Macon Air will pay 2 percent of its gross revenue (excluding sales and use taxes collected, federal excise taxes collected and other taxes collected for and as required by government authorities) or 50 percent of its net revenue — whichever one is higher. It’s a deal Drake feels is fair for both the county and his business. 

“While negotiating we knew there would be no more funding for maintenance from the county — this is a much better lease for the county and we don’t blame them for that,” he said. “I think in a year or two it will be a good thing for us. It won’t be cash flow positive for the first year or two, but we hope it will be in the long-term. We think we can turn a profit out here, and if we can it’s good for everybody.”

Gillespie said the intent of the airport authority was to make the contract all-inclusive and have all the costs to run the airport included in the FBO’s side of contract. Hopefully, with some cash flow coming back to the authority from the airport revenue, the authority can save up some funds. 

“That way when a match comes up for grants the authority can respond to those without a cost to the taxpayers,” Gillespie said. “It’s a very clean lease that clearly outlines who’s responsible for what.”

 

Challenges

Macon Air is taking over operations during a transitional time for the airport. The airport authority is working toward another expansion project to extend the runway from 5,000 feet to 6,000 feet to increase safety measures for larger aircraft flying into Macon. 

The North Carolina Department of Transportation approved $4.5 million for the expansion project, but the project is probably still another four to five years away. However, the authority and the county recently had to fork out more funding in order to complete unfinished archeology work that should have been done during the last runway expansion project in 2011.

Earlier this year airport authority members were surprised to learn that the archeological piece of the project started in 2009 — meant to document and catalogue any Cherokee artifacts found on the land that was disturbed — was never completed. The authority had to go back before county commissioners to ask for $33,334 in matching funds to be able to complete the $193,000 worth of work. 

While the expansion project is within the authority’s purview and not Macon Air’s, Drake and Phillips are very much in favor of the runway extension. 

“We hope they can add an additional 1,000 feet to make it easier for jets getting in and out from here — 5,000 feet is fine for our planes but some of the bigger planes use every bit of that runway,” Drake said. 

Phillips said extending the runway to 5,000 several years ago was essential to allow jets to land, but 5,000 is the minimum length they need. Another 1,000 feet would give them ample room to safely and confidently land. 

“You have to think about the terrain here,” Lassez said. “Many people aren’t comfortable landing in the mountains anyway.”

The Macon County Airport can be a tricky place to land for pilots not accustomed to the mountainous terrain surrounding the runway. The fog that tends to settle in the Cowee Valley can also make an approach more difficult. 

The extension will likely be built out on the west end of the runway since the authority already owns the property and extending the east end would mean building out over a creek. 

 

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A pilot refuels his plane from the new gas trucks now available at the Macon County Airport since Macon Air LLC took over management. Jessi Stone photo

 

Community asset

Offering scenic flights and special community events at the airport is another goal. Drake knows the airport is in desperate need of some good PR and community involvement. 

Many people in the community have been critical of the county funding the airport because they see it as only being a benefit to wealthy people, but Drake and Phillips want to highlight the many benefits the airport brings to Macon County. 

First and foremost, the airport is a major benefit for economic development. Without it, Drake probably wouldn’t have been able to grow his empire in Macon County and many of his employees wouldn’t be able to stay in Macon County. 

“We frequently have to go to Washington, D.C., or New York and many other places — if I can put two to three people on our plane they can leave in the morning and come home that evening,” Drake said. “But if they had to fly commercial it would take three days of travel just for three hours worth of meeting time.”

Drake isn’t the only business that benefits — companies like Duotech Services, Duke Power, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and more also utilize the airport. It’s a major selling point for the Macon County Economic Development Commission when trying to attract new industry to the rural county. 

Then there is the impact on tourism and the second-home market in Macon County. Private pilots fly in to the airport to stay at their second homes in the region or for a family vacation — and while they’re here they rent cars, buy fuel, groceries, rent hotel rooms and spend money at local restaurants and shops. Phillips said it’s a trickle down effect that eventually helps the local economy. 

“Enterprise rentals brings cars out here so that creates jobs, they stop and buy fuel so they supports our gas stations,” Phillips said. We’re always recommending restaurants and shops to visit — that’s sales tax revenue for the county.”

Phillips said he hopes to get more community members out to the airport for special fly-ins and groups that bring in planes like the B-17 that came in a few weeks ago. Lassez said she would like to see more student field trips to the airport to get children excited about the science behind airplanes and aviation. 

“Gwen and I fly all over the county but there’s nowhere I personally like better than when we line up for final approach here — this is home and there’s nothing like living in these mountains,” Phillips said. 

Drake shares that enthusiasm for Macon County, which is why he has chosen to grow his businesses in his hometown. 

“I like creating jobs in Macon County and Western North Carolina. It’s not just Macon County anymore — we’ve expanded our footprint with offices in Dillsboro and Hayesville as well,” he said. “I like the people here — I have family here and I have many of them that work for me. I could save money in Tennessee, but it’s not worth it for me.”

 

 

The Drake empire

• Drake Income Tax and Accounting: founded by Phil Drake’s father in 1954, Drake sold it to employees in 2004 for $1 on the 50th anniversary of the business’ founding.

• Drake Software: Software for accountants and tax preparers. Headquartered in Franklin, with additional call centers in Sylva and Hayesville.

• WPFJ Radio: Commercial AM station, Christian programming, in Franklin. Donated this year to Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, a Christian college.

• WNCSportsZone: Sports equipment and athletic shoes and apparel in Franklin.

• Dalton’s Christian Bookstore: Stores in Franklin.

• Macon Printing: A commercial printer in Franklin.

• PRemiere Marketing: Advertising and marketing agency based in Franklin.

• Franklin Golf Course: Nine-hole public golf course, driving range, pool.

• DNET Internet Services: Dial-up, DSL, wireless, webhosting. Based in Franklin.

• BalsamWest FiberNet: A partner with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in building underground fiber.

• TechPlace: Computer and cell-phone sales and repair, stores in Franklin and Hayesville.

• The Fun Factory: Family entertainment center in Franklin. Includes the Pizza Factory and The Boiler Room Steakhouse in the same building.

• The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts: 1,500-seat theater in Franklin, with orchestra pit and full staging.

• EPS Financial: Process banking transactions and debit-card transactions. Based in Easton, Pa.

• GruntWorx: Converts scanned documents into readable and searchable PDFs and can import data into tax software. Originally based in Massachusetts, Drake moved the company to Derry, N.H.

• Stellar Financial: Drake is an investor in this Stroudsburg, Pa., company providing software and integrated management services for nonprofit donors.

• Sylvan Sport: Drake is an investor in a Brevard-based company that builds the “GO,” a camper.

• Galaxy Digital: Drake is an investor in this Asheville company that creates digital campaigns and works on web communications.

• Drake Capital: Drake is a partner in this Matthews-based real-estate acquisition and development company.

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