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  • Allen Turner

County airport prepares for major improvements, upgrades

The Columbus County Municipal Airport is on the cusp of $3.379 million worth of upgrades and rehabilitation.

County government owns the facility and, earlier this month, county commissioners okayed grant agreements between the N.C. Dept. of Transportation and the county for runway and apron rehabilitation projects.

Additional upgrades, including a new terminal building, are in the works but likely won’t occur for another five years or so.

The first upgrade for rehabilitation of the existing runway and apron, is expected to get underway in April and will close the airport for about 45 days, according to airport Director Phil Edwards. Runway resurfacing will cost $2.849 million, while apron rehabilitation will be $494,469.

The federal government will pay for the upgrade with funds administered by the state Dept. of Transportation’s Division of Aviation. No county local matching funds will be required, although the state will kick in $290,556 in local dollars to go with the federal money.

The runway resurfacing project will not involve lengthening the current 5,500-ft. runway, which was expanded decades ago from its original 3,700-ft. length.

Edwards is bullish on the airport and on its economic impact in Columbus County. Citing 2016 statistics from the DOT’s Division of Aviation, Edwards says that the Columbus County Airport had an annual impact of $121.98 million on the local economy, including $94.36 million in direct infusion, $20.71 million in indirect monies generated and $6.91 million in “induced” income.

Although the airport itself has only three employees, only one of them full time, the Division of Aviation said that in 2016 there were 380 local jobs with a total payroll of $22.58 million that existed as a result of the airport’s presence.

Edwards, a licensed pilot, has been involved with the airport since 1998 when the airport authority was formed. After his retirement from the R.J. Reynold Tobacco Company, the Chadbourn resident who grew up outside Fair Bluff, joined the airport as an employee in 2004.

He says the local airport, as a midway point between metropolitan New York and Florida, has become a major east coast refueling stop for air travelers passing traveling south from the northeast. “We’ve got a lot of repeat customers,” he says. “A lot of them won’t stop any where else but here for fuel.”

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