The Jackson County airport has reached a crossroads.
For years the little aviation field above the clouds has been a financial burden on the county. Now, with its governing body dwindling in number and its revenues lagging behind its operating costs, the board of commissioners has to decide whether to invest in its expansion or put a lid on it.
For County Commissioner Tom Massie, the decision is pretty clear.
“The airport has been somewhat of a millstone around the board’s neck since the 1970s,” Massie said. “A lot of people in Jackson County don’t even think we need an airport.”
Massie and fellow Commissioner Joe Cowan see the airport as a county service that is more a luxury than necessity.
“Just to cut to the chase, a lot of people have felt from the beginning with the airport that it really couldn’t be justified in terms of taxpayer dollars when less than 1 percent of the people in the county use it,” Cowan said.
But defenders of the airport argue that it’s fallen victim to local politics and bad luck, and that it offers more than just a luxury playground for handful of private plane owners.
Jim Rowell, a local pilot who sat on the airport authority before being removed and reinstated in 2005, believes the board is punishing the airport for what amounts to political grievances.
Rowell said the airport is an important piece of infrastructure that the county can maintain without a huge investment, thanks to state and federal matching grants. Essentially, the county is eligible for $150,000 of matching grants each year in return for an annual investment of just under $17,000.
“If you want to know the value of an airport to a county, talk to a county that doesn’t have one,” Rowell said. “I don’t understand the mentality of county commissioners who will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits they know they can’t win, give large raises to their highest paid employees when they can’t afford it, and they can’t come up with $17,000 for the airport.”
But the argument over the airport’s future is not just about money. It’s about whether the county can forgive its past.
Economic development or financial drain
In 2005, a major rainstorm became the airport’s latest calamity. It cost the county more than $60,000 in legal fees to beat a lawsuit brought by neighboring property owners whose land was inundated with mud and runoff from the airport.
The county eventually won its lawsuit, but the fallout and expenses are still on the minds of the commissioners, who see the airport as a drain on the budget and not as an engine of economic development.
“We’ve virtually been in lawsuits from day one,” said Massie. “Whatever it’s generated we’ve probably paid out to lawyers. I don’t believe anyone can point to concrete proof that it has created economic development.”
Bill Austin, a local pilot who has been heavily involved with the airport authority, said the airport has both direct and indirect economic development benefits, basically because it offers a way for businesses and property owners to find Jackson County.
Austin relocated to the area after his retirement from the military because of its airport, he said.
“I knew nothing about Jackson County when I bought my first piece of property here,” Austin said. “I saw the airport on the chart. I flew in and said ‘This is it’.”
Austin believes the airport has played a role in bringing in high-profile national corporations like Wal-Mart, because their site development scouts had an easy way into the county. Austin has seen executives with Harrah’s Casino fly in and out of the airport, more anecdotal proof of its importance to the region.
Rowell doesn’t understand how a regional airport that carries the county’s name could be such a low priority for its commissioners.
“This is the Jackson County airport,” said Rowell. “One way or another you’ve got to put some money into it. The airport is working hard to make itself a viable entity and all they need is matching money.”
The ongoing struggle between the airport authority and the county commissioners over the $17,000 required to release the federal matching grants has come to a head.
Board members like Cowan and Massie argue that the airport should generate its own revenue to meet the match. Rowell and Austin argue they would already be self-sufficient if not for the landslide following heavy rains and the county’s stinginess.
The power struggle
The current airport authority’s chairman, Greg Hall, announced recently that he was stepping down from his position at the end of the year. The airport board was already operating with just three of the five members it is supposed to have, due to failure by the county commissioners to appoint the additional members.
Hall’s departure will leave only the board with just two members –– County Manager Ken Westmoreland and Sylva business owner Jason Kimenker.
Kimenker appeared at the board’s meeting last week to urge them to appoint new members to the authority.
“I am here to make it pretty clear that we are having trouble at the airport with only three out of the five people were are supposed to have,” Kimenker said. “As of January 2010, we will have only two members. I would appreciate it so much if the county commissioners could have appointments made appropriately so we can run the airport as we have been tasked to do so.”
The airport authority is a state-sanctioned governing body independent of the county. Its original charter set it up as a self-promulgating board with the power to name replacements when a member stepped down.
The county board, unhappy with its lack of oversight, took over the role of appointing airport members in 2007, a move that required special state legislation setting up the new power structure.
Under the new setup, the authority recommends its picks for the board, but ultimately, the commissioners can appoint whoever they want.
Rowell said the board has stood by and watched as the authority’s numbers have dwindled, however.
“Three times the airport authority has submitted names to the (commissioners), and they’ve not chose either of the names nor have they brought forward anyone else,” Rowell said.
At a time when the airport is in need of open, honest discussion, Rowell believes the board is circling its wagons.
“The trouble now is you don’t have the pilots and the public and the commissioners and all the stakeholders sitting down to say what are we going to do with this thing?” said Rowell. “But that’s exactly what we were doing a few years ago.”
The county board and the airport authority worked closely together at one point, working out a 10-year plan and setting aside money from N.C. Department of Transportation grants for the potential construction of revenue-generating “T-hangars,” which are essentially personal parking spaces for private aircraft.
In 2005, the relationship between the commissioners and the airport authority fell apart when the commissioners removed two members — its chair Tom McClure and Rowell.
Rowell said the political struggle that resulted in his removal was merely fallout from a separate controversy over the Economic Development Committee, which McClure chaired as well. The county decided McClure was doing a poor job heading up economic development, and in the process of removing him from that post unseated him from the airport authority for good measure.
Rowell and McClure sued the county over their removal and won. Rowell believes bad feelings from that power struggle have made certain board members opposed to the airport’s best interests.
Where to go from here?
Earlier this month, Cowan said the board needed to revisit the issue of the airport and come up with a mission for the airport authority before appointing replacement members. He said the commissioners would take up the issue at a workshop in December.
The decision facing the commissioners is essentially what to do with an airport they don’t want to run. Because of commitments attached to federal matching grants, the county can’t shut its airport down without paying back nearly a million dollars.
The airport authority has urged the board to release its last two years of matching grant funding. According to Westmoreland, the authority has the potential to tap into as much as $300,000 in grant money currently on the table — essentially two years worth of federal allocations — if the county is willing to put up a 10 percent match.
Coupled with existing money in the airport’s reserves, the grants could fund construction of eight T-hangars at a total cost of $424,000. The airport has more than 50 people on a waiting list for permanent hangars for their private planes. Austin said the hangars would generate about $24,000 per year of revenue to supplant operating costs at the airport.
Meanwhile N.C. DOT and the FAA have indicated they would supply grant money to give the airport a GPS approach system if the airport would widen its runway by 10 feet, a project that would cost around the same amount as the hangars.
“The authority is going to have to make a decision which way it goes first,” Westmoreland said. “We don’t have the money to do both at once.”
Massie, though, said the board is not in the mood to spend any more money on the airport besides what is required to protect the public.
“We will do what is necessary to make sure the flying public is safe and the citizens of Jackson County are safe, but I don’t think our board is going to participate in any kind of expansion of those facilities,” Massie said.
Commissioner William Shelton said he is also against any expansion of the airport. He believes the airport is useful to the county on some level, but he is concerned that it has become a drain on the budget.
“Anytime you can spend $16,000 to get $150,000, that is hard to pass up,” Shelton said of the grant. “But it is still tax dollars so you have to justify it to the taxpayer. So how do you justify it?”
Austin rejects that reasoning.
“$16,000 a year out of a $61 million budget? Is there really such a drain on the taxpayer?” Austin said.
A major sticking point in the argument is that for a long time the airport authority has talked about becoming a self-sufficient entity, capable of covering its operating costs and supplying the money to obtain matching grants, but that goal has yet to materialize.
Recently, the airport suffered another freak setback when its brand new lighting system was hit by a lightning strike. New lights would cost nearly $150,000.
The airport’s defenders claim that if the county releases its portion of the matching money, then the airport will be back on the road to self-sufficiency. But the commissioners say they’ve heard that line before, which is why they refused to release the matching grant last year.