Study says Dare County Regional must expand to survive
Consultant Brent Lane has a clear warning about the limitations of the Dare County Regional Airport on Roanoke Island.
“As the national air fleet has been shifting from small airplanes to larger airplanes, the Dare County Airport is becoming obsolete," he told the Sentinel in a recent interview. "Doing nothing is not an option. In operating an airport, you're either moving ahead or you're falling behind."
Back on June 3, Lane — a UNC Chapel Hill Globe Studies Institute Fellow and the CEO of Aerogeny Strategies — discussed his study of the airport and made a case for its expansion and modernization in front of the Dare County Commissioners.
If the airport’s primary runway is extended from its current 4,300 feet to 5,800 feet, Lane said, the facility’s current economic impact — 513 jobs and 77.3 million dollars in economic activity — would grow to 770 jobs and $116 million in economic activity.
The proposed project, Lane told the commissioners, has an estimated cost of $30 million, of which $27 million would be paid for by state and federal funding. In his presentation, Lane asserted that he is not an “advocate” for any proposed project, but an “objective reporter of the facts.” And he added, “I think you will find that the facts advocate for themselves.”
Airport Director David Daniels told the Sentinel that the Airport Authority members had been interested for some time in having a study done. And Lane was "highly recommended," he said, by Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles. Nettles told the Sentinel that the Dare County Tourism Board hired Brent Lane in 2013 to conduct an economic impact study for Hatteras Island.
Lane was paid $19,500 for the airport study, which was conducted between January and April of this year.
After Lane’s June 3 presentation, Dare Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard said the board would carefully consider the proposal. But no one expects an airport project to begin in the very near future.
Daniels said the Airport Authority is "moving in the direction" of preparing and presenting a formal proposal to the county commissioners to approve the runway extension, but he does not expect this to happen quickly. "I felt good about the presentation," he said. "But it's a process, and it's not going to happen overnight."
And, as Lane acknowledges, airport expansion would likely raise concerns among neighboring Manteo or Roanoke Island residents who “would assume that extending the runway would mean a lot more noisy airplanes over their house, and this would be something we would have to communicate with the public about.”
In his Sentinel interview, Lane explained that his research showed that the limitations on the kind of air traffic coming in and out of Dare County is having an impact on both the county’s economy and demographics.
He stated that, while Dare County experienced a population growth of more than 7,000 residents since the year 2000, it saw a significant decline in the percentage of residents in the "prime working age" group — people between the ages of 25 and 54 — from 47% to 38% of the total population.
Identifying this group as "the missing middle" who build houses and start businesses and families, Lane said, "Dare County simply isn't a place that this population would consider living in. There are a lot of people that would be key in the future of Dare County's workforce, family life, church life and community life who are not here. And one of the reasons they are not here is the inability to get on a plane in Dare County and go where they want to go."
The key to the airport's future and its long-term sustainability, Lane asserted, is "not the number of flights it has, but the type of flights.” The most significant numbers of customers flying in and out of the Dare County airport are coming for charter boat fishing or to have a custom boat built, Lane said. And he stressed that these air taxis, charter aircraft and corporate aircraft are "increasingly larger airplanes that have trouble using Dare County's current runway."
Weather conditions can exacerbate the runway's limitations even more, Lane said, with rainy conditions or increased air pressure due to heat increasing the limitations on aircraft that can safely land on the runway. Daniels added that, especially with the summer heat approaching, coming in and getting out of the airport will present a problem for many aircraft that would otherwise be fine using the airport.
Lane noted that extending the runway would "do a lot to accommodate some of the business uses of the airport, and it would also increase the possibility — or even the likelihood — of commercial service operating out of Dare County, that would take people to Atlanta, Raleigh, Washington or Charlotte."
Daniels agreed, reporting that he "constantly" receives phone calls asking about the possibility of introducing scheduled commercial service.
Noting his admiration for the Wright brothers and their historic first powered flight achievement, Lane said, "There is no place in the world that has a longer aviation tradition than Dare County. And the birthplace of aviation needs to keep pace."