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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Numbers don’t lie: Scott County Airport has a huge economic impact

The terminal at Scott County Airport in Oneida | Photo: Big South Fork Airpark

Local officials have long bragged that Scott County Airport is second-to-none when it comes to municipal airports in rural America.

Now, for the first time, there are numbers to back up that claim.

The Tennessee Aviation Economic Impact Study, released last week by the TN Dept. of Transportation, places the total economic impact of Scott County Airport at a whopping $11.2 million.

The study, commissioned by TDOT and completed by the engineering consulting firm Kimley-Horn, surveyed every airport in Tennessee. And its final report indicates that Scott County Airport is a more important economic asset than most.

“They sent us a big list of 25 or 30 questions. We filled it out, and then a lady came up and confirmed that all of it was accurate,” said Hank Duvall, the airport’s manager. “Our numbers came in pretty respectable.”

Respectable might be an understatement. The impact study found that Scott County Airport directly supports 62 jobs, with a total payroll of more than $4 million. The total economic output of $11.2 million includes $11 million of what the state terms “on-airport” impacts and $233,000 in visitor spending.

On-airport impacts include airport administration, business tenants and contract employees. At Scott County Airport — or SCX, its IATA code — the more than five dozen jobs identified by the survey as being supported by the airport include those at ATS Tennessee and Big South Fork Aero, two privately-owned businesses that are based at the airport.

ATS Tennessee is the aircraft maintenance facility owned by Wayne Hughes, which relocated from Ohio to Oneida in 2000. Big South Fork Aero is the aircraft management and pilot service company owned by Hughes and Don Stansberry III, which manages five King Airs and four lighter jets for clients in seven different states.

So how does SCX’s economic impact stack up? Among other rural airports in the region, it’s not even close.

In TDOT’s Region I, which includes all of East Tennessee, Scott County Airport’s $11.2 million economic impact is far and away the highest among rural airports. While it can’t hold a candle to the operations at major airports — such as Knoxville’s McGhee-Tyson Airport, which has an economic impact of $2.1 billion, or the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, with its $233 million economic impact — it more than holds its own elsewhere.

The rural airport that comes closest to matching Scott County’s in East Tennessee is the Rockwood Municipal Airport, with an economic impact of $6 million. The Campbell County Airport has an economic impact of $5.1 million.

For perspective, Scott County Airport generates nearly as much economic output as Morristown’s Moore-Murrell Airport, a city with a population of nearly 30,000, where the economic impact was measured at $12.9 million.

By comparison, Fentress County’s airport has an economic impact of just $813,000, Overton County’s airport has an economic impact of just $734,000, and even Crossville’s airport has an economic output of only $6 million.

Statewide, there are few rural airports that come close to being on the same scale as Scott County Airport, in terms of economic output.

But there is more to airports than just fiscal numbers. Scott County Airport has long been recognized as one of the most sophisticated rural airports around. Duvall said it’s hard to match what SCX offers.

“We’ve got GPS approaches, we’ve got a 5,500-ft. runway, we’ve got maintenance on the field, we’ve got the airpark next door, and we have 24-7 fuel sales, which helps generate funds for us,” he said.

Scott County Airport has long been attributed as one of the lasting impacts of U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.

Baker, a lifelong resident of Huntsville who died in 2014, rose to prominence as U.S. Senate Majority Leader and a Republican presidential candidate who later served as White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. Maintaining his offices in Washington and his home in Huntsville meant he needed the ability to easily travel between the two locations. And so Scott County Airport became what it is.

“We all know that was Baker’s influence,” said Bill “B.A.” Armstrong, the real estate developer who started the Big South Fork Airpark adjacent to the airport. “But that’s what makes this airport in rural America a crown jewel. Aviators come from all over the country and they go, ‘Are you serious?'”

Basically, Baker needed somewhere he could land his jet. And with a 5,500-ft. runway, Scott County Airport can handle aircraft that most rural airports cannot.

“You can land dang near anything here,” Duvall said.

That’s important for industrial recruitment.

“That’s the first thing industry looks at: Do we have access to the airport?” Duvall said. “They want to know if there’s an airport that’s big enough that they can land and take off with no problem, and obviously ours is.”

Not only can they land and take off, but with its modern technology, Scott County Airport is more than just a 5,500-ft. runway.

“There’s no comparison. It’s first class,” Armstrong said. “There are very few counties with 22,000 people that have a 5,500-ft. lighted, paved, GPS-approach airport with 24-hour fuel, a maintenance facility and a brand new FPO. It’s very unusual for a town this size.

“It really makes this airport extremely safe to fly into,” he added. “Other airports this size don’t have those bells and whistles.”

Scott County Airport averages 16 takeoffs and landings per day, though Duvall said there’s no such thing as a normal day at the airport. On some days it resembles an air show, he said, with lots of traffic coming and going. On other days, it’s relatively quiet.

“Weather has a lot to do with it,” he said. “When it’s a pretty day, everybody is flying, even if it’s just going up and circling around for five minutes and coming back down.”

There are 41 aircraft stationed at the airport, including the four jets managed by Big South Fork Aero. The remaining 37 aircraft are a mixture of single-engine and multi-engine planes.

While Baker might have been an original influence for the airport, who gets credit for having the foresight through the years to make it what it is? Duvall said it’s difficult to pinpoint any one party who is responsible, though he credits the Scott County Airport Authority — a body appointed by Scott County Commission to oversee operations at the facility — with having the courage to do what it felt was right.

A few years ago, the Airport Authority went against the grain and allowed the Big South Fork Airpark — then just a concept by Armstrong — to have what is termed “through-the-fence” access to the airport. In other words, residents of the airpark could taxi their planes directly into the airport for takeoff.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but we lost all of our funding from Tennessee Aeronautics for two and a half or three years,” Duvall said of that decision. “We weren’t supposed to do that without the support of Tennessee Aeronautics.”

The funding amounted to about $150,000 per year. But the Airport Authority got the Federal Aviation Administration involved. FAA authorities were given a tour of the airport and the airpark, reviewed the 72 pages of covenants drawn up between Armstrong’s firm and the Airport Authority, and they were impressed. What resulted was a model for how through-the-fence operations would be managed elsewhere in Tennessee.

“After the tour was over, everybody went back to their normal, daily stuff and within a couple of months they came up with this thing where they said if all your Ps and Qs are in order, you can have access from the airpark to the airport,” Duvall said. “Then they took a lot of stuff from our covenants and wrote them into their own plan.”

Scott County Airport’s funding was restored, and the Airport Authority was once again in the good graces of the FAA and Tennessee Aeronautics.

“The Airport Authority foresaw the impact that would have on the airport and the county,” Duvall said. “They saw all the fuel sales and property taxes the airpark would generate. They have really impacted the county a lot more than people realize. A lot of people think they’re just a bunch of rich people. Well, yes, they’ve got money, but they’re spending that money here.”

Today, the airpark is becoming well established, thanks to the asset of the airport in its back yard. Already, the airpark is generating close to $60,000 in property taxes for Scott County each year. Before development began, the 450-acre tract of property the airpark now occupies was generating just $3,800 in taxes annually. And the $60,000 is a number that will only continue to grow.

Armstrong said its a mutual benefit for the airpark and the airport.

“Rural airports usually don’t make money,” he said. “It’s usually a drain on the local economy. But this airport is self-sufficient. It’s not just us, but we do help.”

Airpark residents buy gas from the airport and they paid $21,000 in annual fees to the airport last year alone.

“We aren’t the only ones,” Armstrong said. “Wayne Hughes and his team at ATS are a big part. But it’s very unusual. Scott County is an airport that runs in the black.”

Duvall said the airport consistently amazes first-time visitors.

“Ninety-five percent of the people, when they first come in here, you can tell they’re just blown away,” he said. “They say, ‘Gosh, you guys have a nice airport here.'”

The next major project for the airport is a runway and taxiway resurfacing project, which is necessary because a Tennessee Aeronautics paving index study determined that repairs were needed. The Airport Authority and their consultants don’t necessarily agree, but when state officials say changes are needed, that’s the final authority on the subject. Duvall said repaving the runway and taxiway will be a multi-million dollar project. The FAA will foot most of the bill, but a 5% local match is ordinarily required.

However, the county’s engineers believe they have a plan that will convince the FAA to foot 100% of the project, which would eliminate the need for any local matching dollars. There will be a meeting this week at which Scott County’s representatives will plead their case for the matching funds. Jamestown was able to secure 100% funding for a resurfacing project at its airport last year, and engineers think they can negotiate a similar agreement for SCX.

“They think they have what they’re calling an ‘ace in the hole,'” Duvall said. “That would certainly be a good deal for Scott County.”

This story is the February 2021 installment of Business Spotlight, presented by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the Feb. 18, 2021 edition of the Independent Herald.

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