YORK COUNTY, SC
Even high rollers need a place to touch their wheels down. York County leaders say another 1,000 feet of pavement could bring more of them to stay.
“We need a longer runway out there so we can bring in executives and CEOs so they want to come to York County and put headquarters here,” said York County Manager Bill Shanahan.
Shanahan gathered 16 department heads Feb. 15 for a strategic planning session at the new county offices in York. While the county has a variety of transportation needs, those in charge of recruiting large corporations are looking to the skies.
“It is a topic that we should be looking at if we are going to attract headquarters,” said David Swenson, head of the county economic development department. “This is important for a strategy for headquarters recruitment.”
Rock Hill airport director Steven Gould said state reports show the airport took off from $6.9 million in annual economic activity in 2008 to $40.5 million in 2018. The airport can send off and take in private and corporate planes. However, the runway length is shorter compared to regional airports, which means less fuel on planes and multiple stops rather than direct flights.
“Time is money to them,” Gould said of large corporate clients.
Getting to York County isn’t the issue.
“It’s the taking off part that can be trouble for them,” Gould said.
A TRANSPORTATION ISSUE
Transportation is key in the puzzle to attract and keep businesses, county leaders say.
“All that is part of a system that helps our economy grow,” Swenson said. “We know from our large employers in certain areas, in our office parks, they used to have public transportation access.”
Regional transportation planners have been in discussion for months on potential road fixes, for example, in The Kingsley area of Fort Mill, home to several headquarters. A lack of light rail or bus service is an issue for economic growth, too, Swenson said.
“Up in Charlotte, they had it,” he said. “And their work base was using it.”
Rock Hill has a free bus service coming this spring. Regional planners are discussing potential transit connections to the Charlotte system. York County spent about $680 million the past 20 years on roads, Shanahan said.
“Pennies 4 is another $277 million and we can’t keep up,” he said of the voter-approved one-cent sales tax program funding roadwork. “We’ve got to start looking at ways to get some of the vehicles off the road.”
Making private corporate travel easier, experts say, is a step in that direction.
Technology company Honeywell announced in November it would relocate its global headquarters from New Jersey to Charlotte. The company also said one of its group headquarters in Fort Mill would move to Charlotte, too.
“I knew that they weren’t going to come here because of the kind of aircraft that they have,” Gould said.
Swenson said they could build a hanger to park their four corporate aircraft at the Rock Hill airport. But the 1,000 feet of pavement wasn’t there.
“The value of that aircraft would have been significant — hundreds of millions of dollars of tax value,” Swenson said.
The Rock Hill airport is used to relieve Charlotte air traffic congestion. Leaders say a longer runway would likely bring more air travel customers.
“Extending the runway has been a topic for multiple decades,” Gould said. “It’s even part of our mission statement.”
Shanahan said it could cost about $13 million and take three or four years to receive Federal Aviation Administration funding. The county airport competes for funding with sites in South Carolina, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The FAA pays 90 percent of large projects, South Carolina 5 percent, and both York County and Rock Hill split the remaining 5 percent.
That funding model paid for runway repairs in 2012, other paved areas in 2014 and the taxiways in 2017. The taxiway rehab just finished at $4.1 million.
MAKING THE CASE
A $13 million airport project would, based on the current funding setup, cost York County and Rock Hill $325,000 each. Experts say it could benefit people already here and new business leaders.
Gould said most of the land is already set aside north of the runway. A longer runway, he said, would mean planes flying at higher altitude when crossing neighboring homes would lower noise levels.
“That’s one of the big selling points to any community,” Gould said.
Swenson’s group goes on international and domestic trips to recruit or promote the county. Swenson also hosts commerce officials or site selectors for tours. All require air travel.
“We bring them into the community, show them around,” Swenson said. “Showing them the business parks, showing them the companies that are here, things like that, to make sure they’re aware that York County is open for business and we have the right kind of services and ingredients for success.”
In the past six months Swenson’s group and state commerce officials made six announcements for new business in York County, four from new companies and two expansions. Those announcements combine for 735 new jobs. Swenson said he expects another announcement this week.
His department has a goal for 1,000 jobs and $100 million in capital investment this year, an increase of 10 percent.
“It’s pretty stable, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to continue to get out there and do things, to make sure our position is solid,” Swenson said.
From thoroughfare planning to a potential county industrial park to an airport runway extension, Swenson sees ways voters and elected officials can steer economic growth. The airport work would be a major one.
“It’ll put us on the map,” he said.