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‘We’ve been left behind’: How a new focus could land high dollars for Chester County

Chester County SC eyes airport expansion

Chester County South Carolina leaders are talking airport expansion. They have demand for private plane hangar space.
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Chester County South Carolina leaders are talking airport expansion. They have demand for private plane hangar space.

Add Chester County to the places looking toward the heavens for an economic development boost.

“I’m taking baby steps, but all the giant steps need to be taken,” said Keith Roach, director of the county airport. “I’m just throwing it on the table to start the process that was not started 25 years ago.”

Roach, the airport’s lone employee, told Chester County Council on July 17 that an airport expansion is needed to make the site sustainable. New hangar space is needed, he said, to meet growing demand from private business and plane owners.

York County economic leaders also recently pushed for an airport runway extension in Rock Hill. Lancaster County routinely hears from its airport commission, as leaders did July 15, about maintenance, hangars, and other needs.

Chester County has one major advantage, land. But like any expansion, it comes down to one critical question: How do you pay for it?

Running behind

The state awarded an airport to the county and city of Chester in the 1940s. An airport commission organized to run it. The city leased its interest to the county on a 99-year agreement.

Airport funding comes from the county, state, federal government, hangar rentals, leases to businesses, fuel sales and grants.

“That has worked pretty well over the years, but we’ve been left behind,” Roach said. “I guess we haven’t focused enough on expansion in the past, to put us where we need to be at today.”

Traditionally the county has given $20,000 a year. Roach asked for and received twice that amount this past year. Most major projects like runway or taxiway work break down to 90% federal funding, with 5% each from state and county matches.

The airport brings in about $100,000 a year in rent and several thousand dollars more in fuel sales. It gets $150,000 of federal discretionary money. Special projects, such as 25,000 feet of fence at almost $500,000, was possible through a Homeland Security grant. The airport makes up to $40,000 from timber clearing its property.

Still, with the $15,000 a year for insurance and other needs, the airport only profits about $2,000 in a good year.

“Our profit margin seems to be disappearing,” Roach said. “Our operating cost is getting higher. I’m looking at something to sustain this airport on its own income.”

High costs

A recent Charlotte, NC., transplant met with Roach about a place for his $2.2 million plane. The tax on that plane would be $38,000. Fuel could add another $10,000 a year.

The problem is there isn’t a hangar at the Chester airport big enough for the plane.

Then there’s 31-year tenant Skydive Carolina. The company pumps in about $4,000 a month plus fuel to the airport. The company has been asking for another hangar, a third, for several years.

“We’ve been at 100% for the last few years,” Roach said. “We have no hangar space.”

It’s bigger than one resident and one business. Richburg is ripe with new industrial development, which typically brings air business. Right now, air business is going to the Lancaster County airport.

“The (Lancaster) airport is stealing all our business and all our opportunities because (our) airport is not as up to snuff as their airport,” Roach said. “We need to be competitive. We need to get our fair share, and we need to grow this airport.”

It won’t be easy. A hangar big enough for the resident’s plane might cost $500,000. Skydive’s requested hangar could cost $1 million.

“They are paying us a very large sum of that income that we use to operate this airport,” Roach said. “It would be devastating if we lost them.”

In 2014, a federal finance program allowed most airports to build a new hangar, Roach said. The Chester airport got a 10-unit hangar, valued at about $700,000. Roach said that same hangar today would cost $900,000.

“Right now we could use a 10-unit hangar,” he said. “That produces $24,000 a year income for this airport. We’d have to pay that money back. We can’t do it with $2,000 a year.”

Another airport concern is runway improvements that cost millions, and taxiway rehab needed for large private planes. Currently, a $30 million private planed can’t land and fuel up in Chester.

“Our runways will hold it,” Roach said. “Our taxiways won’t.”

A larger plan

Federal grants don’t cover capital costs the way they used to. Adding more water and sewer also could cost into six figures.

“That curtails the growth of this airport as far as landing commercial-type business,” Roach said. “That’s what we need. We’re not going to land an American Airlines to come in here as a hub, or a UPS hub. We’ve got to build it with small general aviation and commercial industrial growth from the county.”

Hangars, utilities and more put most projects into the millions of dollars.

“If we’re going to spend a little bit of upfront money, it needs to be on a plan,” said airport commission member Les Shugart. “I don’t like the idea of spending money arbitrarily on a little bit here or a little bit there. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do, and let’s move forward.”

A larger plan also drops per square footage costs, he said.

“We get more bang for our buck going after a bigger project,” Shugart said.

The county could look to bond. Community development block grants may be an option for extending utilities. The county also is considering impact fees, another route. None of them are definite, and none of them are quick.

“I’m all for growth,” said Councilwoman Mary Guy. “I know money is always an issue, but I am for growth if we can afford it.”

Cracking open the diamond

The Chester airport has one commonality and one major difference with other regional airports. Other airports are full, too, but other airports don’t have the room to grow like Chester.

“We have the room for it,” Roach said. “Every airport around us is nearly at capacity.... We’ve got 1,070-something acres here.”

The airport recently bought about 23 acres for protection. An option sits on Roach’s desk now for 40 more.

Councilman Joe Branham sees possibility in open land near the airport.

“There’s very few counties in the state that have as much land as we have,” he said.

Branham also said airport expansion could have allies. He came onto council in the early 1980s.

“Back then there was a lot of push to develop this airport and make it grow,” Branham said. “It seems like over the years it sort of dwindled.”

Now, he says the case for economic development would find support.

“We’ve known this is a diamond in the rough, and we’re beginning to crack the shell on it now,” Branham said.

The airport location is another selling point. Of the 32 planes at the airport, only about five belong to Chester County residents.

“Chester is relatively close to Rock Hill, Lancaster, Columbia, wherever,” Shugart said. “People will drive that far to house their airplane. And by the way, we’re relatively cheap compared to everybody else.”

Other airports struggling with similar space issues means new hangars and improvements in Chester could lead to quick business. That resident looking to put a private plane in Chester County had to go to Shelby, N.C., to find somewhere for a large, new plane.

“We certainly don’t have a bad airport,” Roach said. “We’ve got a great facility. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get it to where it’s at with no funds, literally speaking. But I’d like to grow the airport. The county is growing. I’d like to see it do better.”

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