By Gordon Anderson
On a recent weekday morning in late September, Bob Heuts and Sarah Staut were still checking off boxes and fixing small details — a piece of wallpaper that hadn’t been properly applied here, yet-to-arrive blinds on the conference room windows there — but, for the most part, things were official. After a year-plus of demolition and construction, operations at the Raleigh Executive Jetport off Farrell Road in northern Lee County had finally moved into the facility’s new 14,500 square foot, $4 million terminal.
“We’ve been operating out of here for a couple of days. There are still some issues to fix, but we’re in,” said Staut, the airport’s office manager. “There wasn’t anything wrong with the building we had. We just needed more space.”
The average Lee Countian is probably aware of the airport’s existence, although it can be something of an afterthought due to the fact that it doesn’t host any commercial service — if you find yourself with reason to visit the facility you’re likely either a flight enthusiast or the owner of a private jet. But don’t let that fool you. Raleigh Exec is known to many as the front door to Lee County and a key driver of economic development for the entire region.
That’s one reason Heuts — who headed up Lee County’s economic development efforts in the mid 2000’s and early 2010s before coming back to Lee County for the airport director job in 2017 — said the local Airport Authority thought it was so important to do this expansion.
“The board needed more space, and more importantly, the pilots who visit us needed a better space,” he said. “Those are our customers. A lot of times a person says ‘I need to go to the Raleigh area,’ but it’s the pilot that makes the decision of where to fly. This keeps us competitive.”
A report issued by the state Department of Transportation in January indicated that Raleigh Exec generates more than $61 million annually in economic activity and has led to the creation of more than 400 jobs. That number is certainly higher today, as the airport was obviously pivotal in a recent Pfizer expansion which brought 300 new jobs to Sanford, as well as a deal with Indian-based Bharat Forge which will bring another 460. The airport is “home” to more than 160 aircraft, all of which are taxed by city and county government.
The airport is open to the public, and one of the new amenities is an observation deck where the public can sit or stand to watch traffic. And traffic is plenty; in a few minutes on that deck for this interview, at least three planes landed — including a Challenger 300 business jet.
“We visited a lot of other airports in the region to get a sense of what worked for them before deciding what to do here,” Heuts said, explaining that the new facility is not only four times bigger than the previous one, it boasts a spacey pilots lounge, improved restroom facilities, multiple meeting spaces, and even several thousand square feet of currently unfinished space that will likely be leased out to aviation-related industry. “We really like the observation deck because we have had people coming out here from time to time to watch the planes land and take off, particularly people with kids, and this is just a much safer area for that.”
Heuts, Staut and the rest of the airport’s staff have spent more than a year operating out of a trailer while the old terminal was demolished and the new one built, and are happy to be in a much more spacious environment.
“The trailer was a pretty nice trailer,” Heuts laughed. “But it’s good to be in here.”
Raleigh Executive Jetport will host an open house on Saturday, Oct. 12. For more information, visit www.raleighexec.com.