Sunday, October 27, 2013

Foothills Regional (KMRN), Morganton, North Carolina: Leaders fly airport in new direction

In June 2012, investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Foothills Regional Airport.

Three men with the airport have since pleaded guilty to charges.

On Aug. 21, Randy Hullette pleaded guilty to embezzlement and witness tampering. On Sept. 24, 2012, Alex Nelson pleaded guilty to public corruption conspiracy, embezzlement and money laundering, and Bradley Atkins pleaded guilty to public corruption conspiracy and embezzlement. All three men are awaiting sentencing.

From the wreckage and damage these three men caused, Foothills is now turning the corner on the past and making strides toward a brighter future.

Allen VanNoppen, a pilot who has returned his planes to Foothills from the Hickory airport, said there has been a vast improvement at Foothills.

“It has transitioned from an environment where it was temporarily very awkward for regular customers and pilots,” VanNoppen said. “It was uncomfortable, frankly. It has transitioned into an environment where the pilots again feel safe, feel confident, feel welcomed, feel appreciated. It’s a much more professional and relaxed environment.”

That wasn’t the case two years ago “when it was a much more sort of controlled environment, and controlled in somewhat of a negative way.”

Pilots now feel their concerns are listened to, and that management is seeking input from them, VanNoppen said. VanNoppen has two planes: A single-engine fixed-wing Cessna and a Piper.

“The concern was at that time, that, as pilots, we really didn’t feel as safe and confident as we really need to feel,” VanNoppen said. “The thing about aviation, there is an enormous amount of trust that takes place because it is literally a life-and-death sort of relationship.”

If pilots have doubts about whether their planes are being managed, serviced or stored safely, there is little he or she can do once in the air.

“There was a lack of confidence and trust,” VanNoppen said. “The concerns were never addressed, so they went to Hickory.”

VanNoppen is now happy with the direction Foothills is headed.

“Oh, I think it’s certainly turned the corner. I think it is once again a very attractive destination for aviators. I think they are once again welcoming the community out to the airport for fly-ins and things like that,” VanNoppen said. “I suspect that before, it was a selective invitation to come to public events. It’s a community amenity. Nobody owns it. The governments own it, so the taxpayers own it.”

Regarding the FBI raid on Foothills, VanNoppen said he wasn’t shocked that it happened.

“I was not shocked that something occurred, that law enforcement got involved,” VanNoppen said. “What was interesting to me was the sort of ferociousness and velocity and magnitude of the investigation. I think that there were some of us out there that clearly felt things were being done improperly, and it was just a matter of time before people got caught. But the scope of the law enforcement action was impressive.”

Brent Brinkley, the Foothills Regional Airport administrator, agrees with VanNoppen’s assessment.

“We’ve made a lot changes. As far as financially, we’re doing very well,” Brinkley said. “We’ve made some big leaps in the last year.”

Brinkley feels the airport has turned the corner and is on its way to being healthy and viable again.

“Yeah, I do,” Brinkley said. “Our financial reporting is done in much more detail now.”

Financial Officer Danny Gilbert is the airport’s financial officer. Gilbert also serves as the Assistant City Manager of Lenoir, Brinkley said. Gilbert is over the city’s finances and human resources department.

“He’s played a big role in helping us getting our financial reports in order,” Brinkley said.

Regarding improvements, Foothills has hired the engineering firm of Talbert, Bright and Ellington, an airport engineering firm based out of Charlotte.

“And they’re going to be helping us with our 20-year plan for the airport. We’re looking to get a parallel taxiway … a full parallel. Right now we’ve got a partial,” Brinkley said. “That will increase the safety of everybody coming in and out.”

Brinkley also said the airport is hoping to lengthen and widen the runway, and get a new terminal building.

The engineering company eventually will provide cost figures for these potential projects.

Most of the grants from the state and federal government pay for 90 percent of projects and require only a 10 percent local match, Brinkley said.

The cities of Morganton and Lenoir, along with Burke and Caldwell counties contribute money to Foothills Regional Airport. Because four government entities are involved, each only has to pay 2.5 percent each, Roberts said.

Foothills Regional Airport is quite the economic driver for the region, Brinkley said.

“The North Carolina DOT (Department of Transportation) did a study last year … I think it was like $3.27 million dollars worth of local economic impact,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley thinks that number will grow over time.

The airport has 531 acres available for industrial use. The land would be prime real estate for any company wanting to build close to the airport and use its transport services, Brinkley said.

“We’ll be working with the local EDCs (Economic Development Commissions) on this,” Brinkley said.

Foothills Board Chairman Bruce Roberts is happy about the direction Foothills is going in.

“I feel like we’re going in a good direction,” Roberts said. “We have a new company working for us to help us to secure some grants.”

The first project Talbert, Bright and Ellington is tackling for Foothills is “an assessment as to what the airport needs,” Roberts said.

“Our airport serves, really, as the face for economic development for some companies that are coming in that are looking to use the air services that we have. We also play a role in satisfying the needs of the local community as far as the private pilots and the commercial pilots that come in and out of that airport,” Roberts said. “We are used by some folks that traverse between here and their second home, which may be in the mountains.

“It’s a balance you have to strive with all those folks and proceed in the best (way) that you think you can. We’ve made some headway with opening the new hangers at the airport, getting those finished up. The customer service of the line staff is really good.”

The engineering firm also is helping Foothills assess “what does the state want and what are they willing to fund,” Roberts said.

The state has a ranked system regarding “what they want us to have,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to work within that system to maximize the taxpayers’ money to make it go as far as it can.”


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