By: Thomas Sherrill, The News Reporter
The roughly half-century-old terminal building at Columbus County Municipal Airport could be making way for a modern, bigger building constructed using federal funds.
A new hangar is also in the works after the Columbus County Board of Commissioners approved airport improvements using $3.2 million of the $10.7 million earmarked for county government by the American Rescue Plan.
County Manager Eddie Madden said a strategic planning team made up of staff members from different county departments developed a list of unmet capital projects that didn’t have a dedicated funding stream.
“The airport projects, in particular, have been on the county’s capital improvement list for some time,” Madden said. “Furthermore, the terminal building project and the corporate hangar project seem to meet the requirements for the ARP program and would be a good use of the funds. Otherwise, the two airport projects would be many years down the road from being constructed.”
For airport director Phil Edwards, the projects are a long time coming, although he remains cautious about the funds arriving.
Phil Edwards is director of Columbus County Municipal Airport.
“We have been planning this for several years, and hopefully we can get the money to do it,” Edwards said. “You never know how that goes.”
Madden said he’s been notified that the county should receive the first half of the $10.7 million “before the end of May” and that “the remaining amount will be received within one year.”
The county has designated that $2 million of the designated airport funds would be for a new terminal building. Edwards says the current terminal, which he believes was originally built in the late ’60s or early ’70s, doesn’t meet modern state standards for an airport such as Columbus.
“We’ve had leaking problems and water problems inside with the plumbing,” Edwards said. “It needs to be bigger.”
A new hangar, Edwards said, would be a corporate hangar, which he believes can help attract new businesses.
“And if you’re not keeping a big corporate plane, you can keep several smaller planes in there, so there’s a benefit both ways,” Edwards said.
As a gateway to Columbus County, Edwards believes in the airport’s use as an economic driver.
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation annual study released in January credits Columbus County Municipal with $167.09 million in annual economic output, $31.42 million in personal income and $20.511 million in state and local taxes, accounting for 515 jobs. Those figures were some of the highest economic outputs for a general aviation airport in the state.
Edwards believes the upgrades will help Columbus keep up with neighboring counties, pointing to recent airport projects in Lumberton, Elizabethtown, Duplin County and Brunswick County.
“If you look around, we’re playing catch-up at our airport,” Edwards said.
The county airport has seen some improvements in recent years, Edwards said, which could help give it a boost, noting recent land purchases to clear one end of the runway and plans to do so at the other, making it safer for planes to land and take off.
Madden brought airport experience when he left his role at Elizabethtown town manager earlier this year to become Columbus County manager. In his former position, Madden helped establish a new terminal at Curtis L. Brown Jr. Field, the airport in Elizabethtown.
“I do respect Eddie’s input and his recommendations at the airport,” Edwards said. He did a great job at Elizabethtown, and I’ve known him for several years. He is interested in this economic development.”
Both Madden and Edwards said that the upgrades will not only benefit economic development but will also better prepare the county for emergencies.
“During a hurricane or natural disaster, the airport is used a lot,” Edwards said, explaining that during Hurricane Florence in 2018, the airport was the only way supplies could be delivered due to roads being flooded.
Another revenue stream helped by the improvements is fuel sales, Edwards said.
According to budget data, the county expects an end-of-fiscal-year boost in airport revenues.
The county had reported $167,485 in fuel sales as of Feb. 11, when 2020-21 budget data were put together. For the remainder of the fiscal year, from Feb. 12 to June 30, the county projects estimated fuel sales will be $279,277, meaning a total of $446,762.
In 2019-20, the Columbus County Airport reported $405,610 in fuel sales.
The county expects tie-down rentals (when pilots rent spaces to store planes) to be down slightly from $42,424 in 2019-20 to $38,500 in 2020-21.
On the other side of the budget, the county expects $644,979 in 2020-21 airport expenditures, up from the $620,804 in 2019-20. Most of those costs are for fuel.