PENDER COUNTY — A small local airport right on the border of Pender County has multi-million dollar plans to expand and increase the economic impact to the region.
Henderson Field Airport manager Gage King provided Pender County Commissioners an update at their Monday meeting, outlining plans for Henderson Field Airport located in the Town of Wallace, 15 minutes from Burgaw, in the next three years. The result is $18.4 million, fully funded by state and federal dollars within the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Strategic Transportation Improvement Program.
Plans to expand the airport were announced almost a decade ago in NCDOT’s 10-year planning program. Though actual work was still years out, additional delays came into play when NCDOT faced financial difficulties in 2018, following Hurricane Florence, then exacerbated by the pandemic.
“This created a lot of excitement for the project, but most people were not aware of how far away the project was scheduled,” King told Port City Daily. “Over time, it created frustration but it wasn’t really anything that created substantial delay other than that is just how STIP works.”
The project was included and funded in the 2020-2029 STIP and will expand the airport’s runway by 1,347 feet, to total 5,500 feet.
“It was the second-most requested thing by our users,” King told Pender commissioners. “It will allow us to service larger, business jet aircraft; a lot of them can’t use the airport today.”
To accomplish the runway expansion, 1.8 miles of roadway and associated utilities need to be relocated, but first, 180 acres had to be purchased.
The land acquisition process began in January 2021 with $1.9 million doled out to 11 different property owners. King said there are still some ongoing negotiations.
Final design work of the extension should be done by May. King then estimates the new roadway construction to begin in October and take about six months. It will run roughly $7.8 million for relocating the road, but the work has not yet been bid out.
Powers, Old Mill and Airport roads all share an intersection just a few hundred feet away from the end of the existing runway, so extending that requires the road to be moved. Once the new roads are open, demolition of the current ones will begin, King explained.
By July 2024, King hopes the runway extension and taxiway construction — cumulatively costing $8.8 million — will be underway, a two-month-long job. Work on the taxiway also includes expanding the airport’s apron, the space where airplanes park.
King told PCD the apron will increase in size by about 30%, but the updated configuration is where the real benefit lies.
“The existing apron is in close proximity to the runway, which limits its functionality and does not coincide with future infrastructure,” King said. “The shape is also long and skinny, which creates challenges for larger aircraft. The new apron is to be further from the runway, designed for a better mix of aircraft, and allow more room for aircraft and development.”
Additional unfunded projects are also on the horizon to revamp the airport layout.
“We’re designed for small planes,” King said. “The idea is to grow it and eventually shift our infrastructure.”
By that, he means the current location of the terminal with associated parking would be moved to better accommodate future growth. Currently, the terminal is near the runway and close to wetlands, both of which limit how far it can expand. An updated terminal would include a conference room, allowing business meetings to take place on site.
Future planned projects, totaling $16 million, include runway rehabilitation and lighting, water infrastructure updates and hangar construction.
The goal is for some work to be funded through grants with NCDOT or the Federal Aviation Administration. The latter requires a 10% local match, which would be $635,000 for proposed projects.
Pender County commissioners contribute $50,000 to the airport annually to help with grant costs and the airport has a current balance of $277,323 from unused, carried over funds.
While the airport sits in Pender County, right on the border of Duplin, the Town of Wallace owns it and retains all formal voting rights.
“However, due to the location of the airport and the benefit it provides to Pender County, we involve them in decisions to some degree and take all their comments very seriously,” King explained to PCD.
The airport advisory board, which makes recommendations to the Town of Wallace, also includes a Pender commissioner to allow the county to have a voice in decisions.
“We’re looking to create that business environment for the airport,” King told commissioners. “That’s the main driver, that’s why we build airports.”
He said airports are typically the first impression of a community, and he wants to improve the Henderson Field location to be more welcoming. To assist with the makeover and future marketing, King also wants to change the airport’s name.
“If you look at anything from an economic development standpoint, it’s not very marketable for people not familiar with the community,” King said. “[Y]ou can’t associate where the airport is by the name.”
To tie in a geographical location to the airport, King and his board are suggesting Wallace – Pender Airport.
“Why not just Pender County Airport?” commissioner chair Jackie Newton asked.
“This is something we’re working on,” King said. “I’m not really in a hurry because I want to do it as we develop the airport.”
Recently released data from the North Carolina Division of Aviation shows the airport has a $13.4 million economic impact regionally, a 39% increase from 2021. Henderson Field Airport jobs have doubled, from 30 to 60 employees. State and local tax contributions have also doubled, equaling $464,000 this year.
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