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"In South Carolina the skies are not the limit, but rather they're the opportunity."

S.C. Aeronautics Commission Executive Director James Stephens said those words Wednesday to describe the economic importance of the Orangeburg Municipal Airport.

"It is an economic base in South Carolina that drives jobs and drives opportunity," Stephens said. "Your kids here in the local community have the opportunity to get jobs and careers for life and to have these opportunities right there in this community."

Stephens spoke during an event held at the airport in honor of S.C. Aviation Week, which is Aug. 18-24.

He noted the Orangeburg airport employs 44 directly and indirectly, including those who work in local restaurants and area hotels.

The jobs bring about $1.6 million in payroll and total $3.8 million in spending. The total economic impact is $5.3 million a year, he said.

The county also manufactures equipment for the aerospace industry at the Sigmatex, GKN I, GKN II and Zeus Industrial Products facilities.

"Aviation is an essential component of economic development," Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler said.

The Orangeburg airport was one of many being showcased across the state during S.C. Aviation Week, a statewide celebration of the economic and education impact of airports and the aviation industry.

Stephens said aviation supports over 122,000 jobs across South Carolina with an economic impact of about $16.3 billion.

Orangeburg airport praised

The Orangeburg Municipal Airport, which is owned by the city, sees close to 8,000 visitors a year who travel into and out of the region.

The airport sees anywhere from 10 to 12 takeoffs and landings daily.

Small corporate planes, medium-sized planes and aircraft up to Gulfstream 550s and 650s typically use the airport. Occasionally, the airport even accepts 737s.

Two runways serve piston and jet aircraft.

Fuel services are available around the clock, and pilots have access to satellite weather, wireless internet and a courtesy car.

Zeus Aerospace Division Global Marketing Manager Eric Trimble said aviation has been beneficial to Zeus. One of its customers is Boeing.

Trimble said the Orangeburg area is an ideal location logistically, noting its ready access to interstates, rail and the Port of Charleston.

"When issues arise in companies like Boeing, it is pretty easy to get there now," Trimble said. "It is an hour door-to-door from our sales marketing location and our facilities here in Orangeburg."

As if on cue, a HondaJet flew into the airport to refuel. The HondaJet fuselage has been assembled in the county by GKN Aerospace since 2012.

Five years ago, Orangeburg County Council reduced the assessment ratio used to calculate taxes on general aviation aircraft from 10.5 percent to 4 percent.

Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, praised Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young for spearheading the effort to make this a reality.

"The biggest room in the house is the room for improvement," she said. "Let us not rest on our laurels. We want to keep on growing and keep on improving. We are about quality here in Orangeburg County."

"Those of you here maybe thinking about expanding, you have no excuse to not expand," Cobb-Hunter said. "If you are here and thinking about maybe locating here, there is no reason to not locate because we’ve got it going on in Orangeburg County."

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Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, says the state has started to focus more on small airports when considering its budget.

He also noted Orangeburg County’s strengths in the area of logistics.

"We are in a unique position as a county to move stuff," Matthews said. "We are a good logistic county."

"The airport adds another piece to that," he said. "It means we can move things quicker. We serve the eastern part of the United States. That is why we call ourselves the Logistics Triangle."

"If you draw a circle around Jacksonville, Charlotte and Atlanta, we are the center of the donut," Matthews said. "If you are looking for place to get your product different place, this is the place to be. In Orangeburg County, you can make money."

Congressman Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said he was born with an appreciation for aviation. His father served with the 14th Air Force-Flying Tigers in World War II. The congressman also grew up near the Charleston Air Force Base and currently lives near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

"Aviation is incredibly important to South Carolina," Wilson said. "Aviation has been cited in employing some 100,000 persons in South Carolina and investing annually $11 billion in our communities across South Carolina."

Orangeburg airport’s future

In an effort to maintain the attractiveness of the Orangeburg Municipal Airport, the city and county have focused on improving the airport over the years.

Last year’s airport projects included:

• A $263,914 runway improvement project which was funded with federal, state and local money.

• The construction of a $700,000, 100,000-square-foot hangar for the Green Mountain Boys, LLC.

The city has entered into a ground lease for a period of 30 years with the company.

Other projects are planned for the airport in near future. These include:

• The construction of a metal shop building for the riding lawnmower manufacturer Husqvarna Group to house maintenance storage and other mowing services. The company is responsible for mowing the property for the airport. The company also uses the airport as part of a testing ground for its lawnmowers.

• Expansion of the airport's main apron area where planes are parked and refueled.

The project is deemed necessary to accommodate larger aircraft and allows for expanding the terminal development area to include an additional hangar and a new terminal building in the future.

Construction will be done in 2020.

• Construction of an access road from the airport to the Orangeburg County Industrial Park.

The project, identified as Crossfield Access Road, has been on the radar for the city for several years, City Administrator John Yow said.

"It is not just for economic development but it is also for safety,” he said.

A fire station is located at the industrial park, but if there were a fire at the airport it would need to take a roundabout way to get to the airport, Yow said.

It will also provide better access to about 90 acres for business development.

"We have an application pending before the FAA," Yow said. "Our application is pending and we need assistance to make sure our application rises to the top for safety and for economic development for Orangeburg."

"If we get a nod from the FAA that that money is available, we are ready for design bid and construction of the road," Yow said.

The city’s plans include the future development of a new hangar and more runway work.

Overall, about $7.2 million is projected to be spent on airport improvements from 2020-2024. Of this, $6 million will be paid with federal dollars, $833,000 with local funds and $333,100 in state funds.

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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