The Macon County Airport will soon be getting much needed improvements to the runway. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and DOT (Department of Transportation) approved Macon County for a $2.9 million grant to ensure the airport continues to meet federal and state standards.
In order to get the $2.9 million grant, the airport would need a 10 percent local match from the county, which amounts to $290,556. Commissioners voted to approve the funding in their last regular board meeting.
Macon County's airport is one of 76 airports in the state and has been identified by the FAA as needing the grant to make much needed improvements to the facilities infrastructure. According to Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory, the monies were allocated to the county to resurface the runway. During the FAA's last bi-annual inspection, the airport was rated as in fair condition, but the strength of the runway's surface was nearing the poor condition side. “It’s been years since the runway has been resurfaced, and the strength of it is deteriorating,” said Gregory. “That is why we were able to get the funds, because of the recognizable need for improvements.”
While the runway is being resurfaced, it is also slated to be widened by 25 feet to make the airport safer. As Gregory explained, since the runway has been extended, airport traffic has increased by 30 percent. To make the landing process safer for both pilots and airport staff, a 5,000-foot runway is recommended to be 100 feet wide by the FAA. Macon County's runway is currently 75 feet wide.
Airport authority member Harold Corbin spoke to side of safety at the airport. According to Corbin, the 2012 fatal plane crash that resulted in the death of five people could have been prevented if the airport dimensions were different. “That could have been prevented had the runway been 10 feet wider,” Corbin said, “because the pilot went off the edge of the runway, tipped over, and exploded.”
Airport manager Neil Hoppe agreed with Corbin and said that the runway widening could have possibly prevented the plane from tipping on its side, “Yes, it would have had less of an impact,” Hoppe said.
In addition to the safety aspects of widening and resurfacing the runway, the grant monies will also be used to replace the runway lighting, which is the original lighting that was installed when the airport was first built.
Commissioner Ron Haven asked why lighting was necessary if the airport advises planes to not use the facility after dusk.
Hoppe explained that although he recommends planes not fly in after dusk if they are not familiar with the area, they often do. Pilots who are familiar with the airport also often fly in after dusk. The lights are also essential to the safety of the airport during inclement weather.
In addition to the safety improvements that the airport renovations will offer, any investment into the airport has an economic advantage for the rest of the county. “The airport is the front door into Macon County for a lot of people, just like the Georgia Road is for people coming from Atlanta. People who fly into Macon County come here to look at property and have built substantial homes that add to our tax base,” said Tommy Jenkins, economic development director of Macon County. “Drake Enterprises, who employees around 600 people in Macon County, uses our airport. It is very critical to their operations.”
In addition to Drake, Jenkins said that other businesses such as Duotech Services, Caterpillar, and Old Edwards Inn depend on the airport year round.
Harrah's Cherokee Casino, which employees 146 Macon County residents, was also cited as being a large component in the airport's necessity.
“It’s not only about what’s going on right now and the businesses that are using it, it’s about the potential future impact that could have in our county,” said commissioner Jimmy Tate, who acts as the commissioners liaison to the airport authority.
Despite the FAA's mandate to resurface the runway in order to continue operations, Commissioner Paul Higdon said timing for the project was off. “I’m not opposed to maintaining all the facilities in the county?it’s just the expansion area that concerns me in a recession. The best thing would be for the authority to be self-sufficient,” he said.
Higdon also pointed out that the airport is an authority, meaning they are a separate entity from the board of commissioners able to make decisions without county approval.
In a split 3-2 vote, commissioners approved the 10 percent funding match with Commissioners Ron Haven and Higdon casting the opposing votes.