With $1.1 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics, the Sharp County Regional Airport is being upgraded and expanded.
"Basically the only thing we could get in here was single engine small aircraft," said Ray Maynard, Cherokee Village mayor and chairman of the airport commission. "The big problem was the 50-foot width of the existing runway."
The runway is being expanded to 75 feet wide. The length will also be increased by 150 feet. The expansions will allow the airstrip to become a class 2-B runway, Maynard said.
"The improvements will allow corporate aircrafts -- small twins and small jets -- to land at the airport safely," Maynard said.
A new lighting system is also being added for nighttime operations, he said.
The improvements will allow more aircraft to use the airport and can bring more economic development to the area, said John Knight, director of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics.
"Economic development is a definite benefit of airport expansion, especially an airport that's expanded to the point that it can take larger aircrafts and increase business opportunities," Knight said.
Maynard said local businesses will be able to utilize the airport with their larger planes.
"Many larger businesses, like CenturyTel, Wal-Mart and others, have to fly into Batesville and then have someone pick them up," Maynard said. "Once the project is finished this will be more convenient for everyone."
The airport was recently closed to allow the contractor, Spurlock Inc. of Searcy, to make the improvements to the 40-year-old airport while under the supervision of Garver Engineers of Little Rock. Atlas Asphalt will pave the runway once the expansion is completed. Time Striping will paint the runway and provide erosion control, Maynard said. The contract is to be completed by Oct. 29, he said.
Of the $1.1 million in grants, 95 percent was awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Arkansas Department of Aeronautics pitched in the other 5 percent, Maynard said.
Knight said the funds provided by his department are paid for through aviation taxes, the sales tax derived from aviation fuel and services at airports. That money is used for airport projects across the state.
"Our budget is approximately $8.4 million annually for our department," Knight said. "Of that, $8 million has to go back to airport projects across the state. Aviators are paying for the projects."
Landing at the small airport has been limited in the past because of the runway size.
"Right now some of the corporate jets can't land at our airport," said Jeri Johnson, a commission member from Highland. "The insurance companies won't let them because of the size of our runway. This project will allow them to land."
Knight said airports serve as catalysts for enterprise, job growth and investment. Airports can make the economy more competitive by providing businesses access to markets, materials and international commerce.
"The more we grow, the more businesses can come into our area," Johnson said. "I can't see any negatives. All I see is what we, as an area, can gain."
These grants aren't the first awarded to the airport. In the last several years, the commission was awarded money to construct a hangar, fuel terminal, parking lot and fence, Maynard said. A grant was also awarded to allow the commission to purchase additional property to prepare for the runway improvements, he added.
The airport commission was formed in January 1998 with members from Ash Flat, Cherokee Village, Highland, Hardy and Sharp County. Each entity has two members on the commission, which oversees the operation of the airport and decides on the yearly budget, Maynard said.
The budget is made from yearly donations from the Quad Cities and Sharp County. Although each entity is to donate $5,000 yearly, the budget doesn't always add to what it is expected to, Johnson said. Some cities have not paid their $2,500 in January or their $2,500 in July. The commission gets by with what they have.
"Each of the five entities is supposed to contribute $5,000 a year per their contract," Johnson said. "That money is what is used for the daily operation of the airport. Without the grants we couldn't do any of these projects."
With such a small operating budget, the grants were a lifesaver to the airport which has experienced decreased usage for much of its existence, Johnson said.
The first airport was constructed in Cherokee Village near Town Center, Maynard said. The current airport was constructed by Cooper Communities in the 1960s.
During the years, fewer and fewer airplanes were seen using the airport. Contemplating closing the airport, Cooper Communities gave the airport to Ash Flat in 1981.
The city didn't have money to pay for the upkeep of the airport. Rather than seeing it close, airport commissioners and others donated money to keep the airport open.
During this time, the first airport hangar, now the airport office, was built in 1983.
In 1988 the city passed a 1-cent sales tax and was able to provide the airport's funding.
Construction continued. In 1990 two more hangars were constructed. A fuel supply station was added in 1992.
There are 91 airports in Arkansas. Four are primary carrier airports used for large commercial flights. Four others are non primary carrier airports and include those in Jonesboro and Hot Springs. The rest, more than 70 percent of the 91, are small general aviation airports like Sharp County Regional Airport, Knight said.
Johnson said the current project turns another page in history for the airport.
"We want to build upon what we already have," Johnson said. "We're trying to get more grants, more hangars, more space and just trying to allow the airport and the area to grow."