RUTHERFORDTON —Airports play a vital role in driving the economy of North Carolina. A just-released report, “North Carolina State of Aviation,” documents the importance of airports including smaller community airports like the Rutherford County Airport located near Rutherfordton.
“Our network of 72 publicly owned airports, and the aviation and aerospace assets that rely on them, move our economy forward by creating jobs, supporting business growth and connecting people and companies to markets around the globe,” said Bobby Walston, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation, Division of Aviation.
According to the report, North Carolina airports had a $61 billion overall economic impact, and generated $2.5 billion in tax revenue during 2020.
The Rutherford County Airport had a $13,740,000 economic impact and generated $746,000 in state and local taxes.
Rutherford County Airport is one of 62 “general aviation” airports across the state. There are also 10 “commercial service” airports, which includes the major facilities like Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Asheville Regional Airport.
The Rutherford County Airport is wholly-owned by the county. The county commissioners serve as the airport authority, with Commissioner Mike Benfield serving as chairman for the past six years.
“Our airport is something the public can be proud of,” Benfield said. “The airport is regularly used, especially by local industries but also by the military. It isn’t unusual to see a military plane out there.”
The airport, he noted recently installed “self-service” fuel tanks, so pilots can obtain fuel 24 hours.
“Our fuel is typically less expensive than other nearby airports,” Benfield continued. “Pilots sometimes will stop by here to get fuel, instead of buying it in Asheville.”
Benfield said their goal is to continue to improve the local airport, as its economic impact grows.
Economic development officials say the airport is one piece of the puzzle that makes Rutherford County attractive to outside investment.
“As business markets become increasingly national and international in scale, airports are taking on a vital role in economic growth, investment, jobs, and tourism,” said Birgit Dilgert, director of Rutherford County Economic Development. “When submitting sites or buildings for a prospective client’s consideration, one of the questions frequently asked is the proximity to airports. While we are able to let companies know that Rutherford County is located within approximately one hour of two international and one regional airport, we also make them aware of Rutherford County Airport, also called Marchman Field. It is a wonderful asset located right here in the county which can provide convenient access to the companies’ facilities.”
Having nearby airports, Dilgert said, help in recruiting and retaining business.
Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, Devon Raisch, airport manager, said 2020 was a better year than he expected.
“Traffic at the airport dropped by more than half back in March 2020 when things were being locked down,” he said. “But beginning in mid-summer, traffic began to slowly pick back up.”
Before the pandemic, the airport would have from 30-35 flights per day. Air traffic has not rebounded to those levels according to Raisch, but it is slowly improving.
“This is obviously not a normal aviation period,” he said. “But we still get some industry traffic, and we have had travelers coming to private events at the equestrian center, and for other things.”
Raisch said with the pandemic, more people are looking to travel by private plane and avoid the larger airports.
Raisch remains optimistic about 2021.
“The state is projecting the aviation sector will rebound more quickly than some other parts of the economy. So, I am hopeful,” he said.