Triangle North Airport to expand runway, hangars
By Kathy Harrelson
LOUISBURG — If ever the words “Good things come to those who wait” apply, the economic development leadership in Franklin County is discovering them to be true.
Last week, a team consisting of Franklin County Economic Development Commission Director Richie Duncan, the Existing Industry Coordinator Bo Carson, County Manager Angela Harris and Triangle North Executive Airport (TNEA) General Manager Steve Merritt told the Franklin County Board of Commissioners that $11 million has been allocated for the airport in the North Carolina Department of Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), set to get a full nod in June.
The proposed funding will do more than seal plans to expand the existing 5,500-foot runway to 6,500 feet and straighten the road in front of the airport to allow more hangars to be built.
It will ensure that the airport remains county-owned indefinitely, or at least contractually for 20 years under the acceptance of the funding, and it opens up potential revenue and tax-base streams not currently possible within the adjacent industrial park south of the runway, Merritt said.
That’s a lot for a 14-year-old airport that has seen its share of ups and downs and challenges in both finance and operations — some under contracts that went sour before Merritt came on board.
“Up until now, we have just been in a holding pattern. We have done the best we could with what we were given,” Merritt said. “This (TIP grant) is the key to success … the key to continuity.”
Although NCTIP money promised early has historically sometimes been taken away and redirected, this funding is in a non-highway determination and nothing short of lightning will strike it away from coming to the airport, Merritt told commissioners.
Merritt brings to his position 45 years of experience as a pilot as well as with navigation and aviation with the N.C. DOT and the FFA.
The N.C. DOT has approved the funding in full at this point, he said.
“It is as sure as anything can be,” he emphasized.
He told of receiving a phone call in December from DOT explaining the allocation with a request to send back a letter of acceptance, which he delivered.
“What words do you need on the paper?” he remembered asking the caller, laughing.
It was an unbelievable moment, Merritt said, yet it was one he and the county airport commission and economic development leadership team have been hoping to have for years.
Spend money to make money
The optimistic vision of what investment at the site could mean for the county in terms of growth to the roughly $4.2 billion tax base, as well as increase in jobs, has always been in the forefront of plans, Harris and Duncan explained together.
Over the past decade and a half, the county has seen the 400-acre airport site be connected to U.S. 401, the construction of an industrial shell building, the location of another core building, the growth of aircraft from 80 up to 125 and an operation that went from financially bleeding to generating revenue. Merritt and the others say TNEA presently brings in $140,000 toward the county tax base and generates about $75,000 in annual receipts.
In the last 15 years, the county has invested about $300,000 in the airport, they said. The $11 million grant will require a 10-percent county match, or $1.1 million, over about five years — a commitment county commissioners will have to make.
Additionally, as part of the grant, there is some land that will need to be purchased at the far end of the runway for easement regulations. Merritt told commissioners discussions for that purchase are under way.
Merritt and his team hope the expansion will lead to more corporate air jets finding hanger space at TNEA. CaptiveAire is the only one housed at the airport currently, but additional hangars and locating aviation-related businesses in the park are all part of future plans, Merritt said.
Under the direction of the seven-member Airport Commission, Merritt said TNEA has focused on serving customers as best they can day to day — from making sure a nice make-up mirror is in the ladies’ room to providing highly skilled mechanics who are able to identify and isolate problems and save pilots money.
“Every airport is different; every one of them has a different personality,” he said, adding the personality of TNEA comes from its pilots.
“People come here because they love to fly,” he said. “Now, finally, we have positioned ourselves to be ready to receive when they (N.C. DOT) are ready to grant,” he said.
Duncan agreed, adding that the services to customers at Triangle North in combination with the persistent commitment of county support and funding to develop the airport in baby steps has allowed for the current leap.
TNEA is “pilot-centric” and operationally stable, she said.
From that perspective, it becomes attractive to industry and business wanting to use it and to locate in the park.
“You have to be ready in today’s market. You can’t just be ‘getting ready.’ Industry won’t wait. This is an asset we can market,” she said. “The county has worked together on this over time, and it shows the county is committed to growth and planning and executes decisions for growth.”
“It also shows that you don’t give up. That you keep going as a team because you know the direction is right,” Harris added.
That attitude is important when grants are being determined, Harris said, as entities giving grants expect accountability and a good track record.
“Getting this says we were ready and we were capable,” Merritt said. “It takes foresight, and it takes guts … because you need to put up the money and take the risk.”
Merritt said he wants the airport to become an integral part of the community, more so than now.
Currently, there is an active Civil Air Patrol squadron, and there is a county emergency services presence.
Harris and Merritt both say that more activities with fire, rescue and police are likely — similar to the county’s Fire Association celebration in 2015. Duncan and Carson also want to involve existing industry in the growth and successes.
More grant news
Duncan also publicly announced to commissioners the receipt of a $1.78-million rural infrastructure grant for sewer lines at the industrial park near the TNEA. Water is already located there.
The grant is part of a $35 million package from the state that went to seven industrial sites across the state. A lift station will be constructed in Royal as part of the project.
The grant is unique in that no jobs had to be promised with the project — a tremendous plus for a rural county such as Franklin, which is trying to get its first industries to locate in a park, Duncan said. Also, there is no local match required from the county.
The airport itself has generated small business, she noted.
There are eight businesses which have located at the airport to service customers, including aircraft sales, flight instruction and skydiving. These are strong attractors for customers, Duncan said.
Even more significant are the remaining five businesses, which are mechanic operations, Merritt said. Customers can have their airplanes worked on with confidence, he said, and for a pilot, that is an important asset.
Wake Electric has also agreed to install two electric car-charging stations, another perk for customers, Merritt added.
The $1.78 million funds come through the Major Site Development Initiative together with the N.C. Department of Commerce in partnership with the Golden LEAF Foundation and Duke Energy.