Lexington County Taking Chance that Airport Investment Will Take Off

Lexington County's plan to turn the old Pelion airstrip into a successful regional airport is a long shot.

The strip has never been much of an airport and Lexington County has never been in the airport business. On top of that, its going to take an undetermined investment from Lexington taxpayers to make it work.

Despite the potential drawbacks, county officials believe they can make the airport take off. Lexington County Council is moving forward with plans to improve the 150-acre airstrip, which the county purchased from Pelion last year for $225,000.

The county armed with far more resources than the tiny town of Pelion has big plans for the little airstrip with a runway too short to serve most private jets. Council members and others are convinced they can create a viable facility that will stimulate economic development in the southern part of the county.

Council Chairman Bruce Rucker, who represents the Pelion area, said he doesnt think theres any doubt about whether the airport could spur growth. We definitely need some type of boost to our economy on that southern end, he said.

The question is, however, whether the county will commit the time and money its going to take to get the job done.

The council has said all upgrades will be paid for with Federal Aviation Administration grants. Early on, county officials said they would pursue state and federal funds to implement more than $2 million in needed improvements. Among the first projects slated is a widening and hardening of the airport runway. County Council has approved money for repairs, such as the terminal roof and air conditioner, as well as adding a fuel farm. There are also plans to repair the airport beacon and lighting and add a coded security gate.

The county has a $225,000 balance in FAA funds and expects another $150,000 in October.

But its going to take some county taxpayer funds to operate this airport. And no one knows how much that will be or how much taxpayers will tolerate.

Councilman Rucker said that while grant money will pay for improvements and hangar rentals will help carry the load for operations, that wont be enough. I also think the county is going to have to put some money in the airport to make the airport profitable.

Its going to be a slow process, he said. Its not going to happen next year. But I think youll see progress there in the next five years.

Mr. Rucker said Lexington Countys airport is going to be more of an asset than people think. Not only will it be an economic driver that lures industrial and business investment, but it also can serve as a secondary airport to Columbia or Owens Field, he said.

People are calling about the possibility of operating businesses on the site, including mechanics and folks who want to open a flight school, Mr. Rucker said.

There also are other uses unrelated to aviation that will help the county, he said. The county plans to locate a sheriffs substation as well as fire services there. That would bring much-needed safety and security to the area.

Councilman Rucker said he is encouraged by the fact that other airports, such as those in Richland County and Camden, were able to grow to be successful. What theyre doing is working, he said. Why wouldnt we be able to do the same thing?

Chairman Rucker said Lexington officials will look at successful airports and mimic some of what they do. That makes sense. But I hope Lexington makes sure the county has full control of its airport and does not hand it over to an outside manager, as Richland County has done for decades. Lexington County hasnt decided how it will run the airport.

Richland County has a successful airport, but has given away control through its arrangement with independent operator Jim Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton serves as airport manager and the airports lone fixed-base operator. He essentially controls the public airport with too little accountability to the county. Thats not good government.

While Lexington has an uphill battle, it certainly can look at other airports for encouragement. A 1998 report by Wilbur Smith Associates showed that South Carolina general aviation airports generated $218 million in total economic benefit. Also, the airports directly or indirectly contributed about 4,200 jobs.

But those airports, whether they were in Greenwood or Winnsboro, came at a cost. And its going to cost Lexington County if its facility at Pelion is to be successful.

I hope the county isnt about to throw good money into a bad project. Officials must determine how much taxpayers might have to fork out to make this thing work sooner rather than later.

If officials cant prove this is a good investment, county taxpayers ought to object to it.