LINCOLNTON – The governance of the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport has been restructured in recent months to come into compliance with state and federal regulations.
“When I came on with the manager’s office in the fall of 2016, it was my understanding that there had been a push for some economic development to take place at the airport,” Lincoln County Program Operations Manager Josh Grant said. “There was a company being recruited by the Lincoln Economic Development Association, and they needed airport space to manufacture and test their product. From what I understand, that never came to fruition because that company’s owner passed away, but during that process of trying to bring prosperity to the airport, the state and federal folks raised the question of who was sponsoring the airport.”
An airport’s sponsor is the entity responsible for making sure the airport is meeting the financial obligations associated with the grants it receives from the state and federal governments.
As joint owners of the land, the City of Lincolnton and Lincoln County have served as co-sponsors since the airport was built in 1986. This muddled the process for bringing in grants to the airport, however, as the Airport Authority – an appointed board that acts in an administrative capacity with the authority to control, lease, maintain, construct, improve, operate and regulate the airport – had to come before the Lincolnton City Council and Lincoln County Board of Commissioners for approval when seeking grants requiring matching funds.
“At one point in time, we were headed down the road of the city and the county getting out of being the sponsors, and letting the Airport Authority become the sponsor because that’s the direction we were given from the state,” Grant said. “That changed in January when we had a conference call with a Federal Aviation Administration representative who said it would speed up the process to just simply keep the city and county as sponsors, but allow the Airport Authority to act as an agent of the county.”
With the Airport Authority now acting in that capacity, it has been granted the authority to approve any grant requiring a county match of up to $50,000 for a single grant or $100,000 for a recurring grant, without having to request authorization from the county commissioners. The board of commissioners voted unanimouslyto approve those specific numbers, and will still have the final say should the airport obtain a grant that requires a more significant financial commitment from the county.
During this process, the city and county also entered into an airport agreement in which the city agreed to cede some of its control over the Airport Authority in exchange for the county agreeing to fund a greater percentage of the airport’s operating expenses.
For years, the airport has received a total of $120,000 annually, with the city and county contributing $60,000 each. Through this new agreement, which was approved by both entities in 2018, the airport will be funded at a split based upon population percentage, similar to how sales tax revenues are distributed between the two.
This means, based on the most recent census data, Lincolnton will now be responsible for funding just 13 percent, $15,600, of the $120,000. The county, on the other hand, will be on the hook for the remaining $104,400 each year, but will also receive 87 percent of the property tax revenue generated by the airport.
In return for shouldering a greater financial burden, the county now has the authority to appoint four of the Airport Authority’s five members. While the city will be responsible for just one appointment. At least one of the county’s four appointees must live within the Lincolnton city limits.
What lies ahead
A report on the impact of aviation on the economy released in January by the N.C. Department of Transportation Division of Aviation shows the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport produced an economic output of $17.12 million in 2018 while generating an additional $828,000 in state and local taxes.
While the airport has been subsidized by Lincolnton and Lincoln County taxpayers since it opened more than three decades ago, its presence has attracted numerous companies to relocate to Lincoln County, many of which are now among the county’s top taxpayers. In fact, while there had been talks of building an airport for decades prior to its actual construction, the process was expedited when The Timken Company insisted upon it being built before committing to build its headquarters in Lincoln County.
Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport Manager Joe Tate doesn’t foresee the need for commercial flights coming in and out of Lincoln County given its proximity to Charlotte and Concord, but instead believes that the key to self-sufficiency lies in using the airport to continue to attract companies to the area.
The airport site contains 453 acres, much of which remains undeveloped, including more than 100 acres near the runway where the county would one day like to see a corporate office park built. Any corporate office park that may be built would also come with hangar space to house the jets owned by those corporations.
The airport has grown steadily over the years and now houses more than 90 planes, most of which are smaller personal planes owned by pilots who enjoying flying as a hobby. Those planes don’t generate a significant amount of tax revenue, but there are a few multi-million dollar jets housed locally that do make an impact.