Franklin municipal operates in the red but its potential is unlimited

Published 4:26 pm Wednesday, August 27, 2008

FRANKLIN—The Franklin Municipal Airport has been around since the early 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built the airport as a project during the Great Depression.

It was home to hundreds of Navy planes during Word War II, providing a safer haven than fields near the Atlantic Coast.

And just this summer, there has been conversation about establishing a regional authority to operate the field.

Currently, the City of Franklin owns and operates the airport, and has since the Navy deeded it to the city following World War II.

As a money-making entity, the airport doesn’t fare well. It operates at a $90,000 a year loss, which is covered by a payment from the city’s general fund.

However, it generates about $1 million in tax revenues in a revenue sharing plan with Isle of Wight established in the early 1990s, Councill said. Its potential added importance to the area is something local decision-makers won’t underestimate.

“It’s an investment in a service that needs to be provided in the area,” said Franklin Mayor Jim Councill.

John Smolak, president of the Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc., said the facility “is an asset we do market.”

On a day-to-day basis, the airport houses 28 planes in hangars that generate rent, and fuel is sold at the field at a slight profit.

Rent on hangars is expected to generate about $72,000 this budget year, and fuel sales are expected to generate another $30,000.

But salaries and other costs outpace the revenues.

But Councill and other city officials — as well as Isle of Wight Supervisor Philip Bradshaw, whose district covers the county’s southern tip — have begun preliminary discussions to establish a regional authority that could develop the land around the airport, or use the airport to attract other development in what officials call a “sub-region.”

Those discussions also included Isle of Wight County Administrator Doug Caskey and former City Administrator Bucky Taylor. Southampton County officials have also been approached about the idea.

“I presented the issue that we wanted to start discussions about a regional authority,” Bradshaw said earlier. “It’s one of the points of our Strategic Plan.”

Bradshaw also said, “Isle of Wight is sitting at a location that has major transportation facilities…. We need to be marketing that. We need to make sure (the facilities) stay financially sound.

“We’ve had good discussions already.”

Smolak, who has not been involved in the early discussions, agreed with the premise to develop the area.

“It is a concept that has been done,” Smolak said. “It should be looked at.

“It has the potential to be a lot more than it is now,” he said.

“I certainly think the extra land around the airport,” Smolak said, “could be utilized for development.”

Smolak said he’s received three inquiries from developers asking about the property. None of those three are in continued discussions, he said.

“We would very much like to be able to develop that,” Councill said, “even though it’s owned by Isle of Wight.”

Many of the larger projects completed around the 360-acre field — such as building fences and adding or resurfacing taxiways — are funded through state and federal aid, particularly through money approved by the Federal Aviation Authority.

Airport Manager Jimmy Gray runs the day-to-day operation, and concedes that people driving by on Route 58 see the airports for “about 15 seconds” and might not see the comings and goings of planes,

or what goes on there on a daily basis.

Planes are free to land and take off on its 5,000-foot runway, and can buy fuel, or have their planes secured overnight without a fee.

“Overnight tie-downs,” Gray said, “we don’t charge because they’ll probably buy gas.”

The airport is used for various business purposes, Gray said, from a vendors installing computer equipment for public schools or developers, such as those who were involved with the building of Lowe’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken properties on Armory Drive.

Flights with passengers bound for International Paper Franklin plant also use the airport.

I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the planes are registered to small businesses,” Gray said.

“I view the airport as an economic development tool,” said Gray, who served 12 years on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors. “An airport is the front door to a community.”

“I think that’s a very accurate assessment,” Mayor Councill said. “It’s very important to our region.”

Out-of-town pilots can also use the airport facilities, not of which are free of charge. There is a pilot lounge, access to computerized weather reports, 24-hour restrooms with showers, and courtesy transportation, albeit in an older model Buick parked at the airport.

Previously, the courtesy car was a retired Franklin police car.

“The corporate guys might get picked up” by colleagues, Gray said, “But the pilots might need some place to go” to eat or to stay overnight.

And the Navy still uses the airport, particularly for helicopter practice landings and take-offs.

Another source of traffic is what Gray termed “snowbirds,” those to fly from the north in the fall to southern destinations for the winter, then back to the north when warmer weather arrives.

“We see a couple who have a summer house in Canada and a winter home in the Bahamas,” Gray said.

But for the most part, Gray said, when a plane lands in Franklin, “There’s a pretty good chance that guy is here to do business with somebody.”

Just how many dollars that generates for area businesses is hard to estimate, Smolak said.

“That’s difficult,” he said, “to put a price on the other services the airport provides the community.”

Gray quoted an old saying: “One mile of highway takes you a mile. One mile of runway takes you anywhere in the world.”