Raleigh Exec Prepares for the Future: Where the Airport Is Headed

ABOUT THE SERIES: We’re taking a look over several weeks at the past, present and future of Raleigh Exec. The first article in this series looked at how Raleigh Exec has been taking off, expanding significantly in recent years to meet its essential and growing role in the Triangle region. This second article in the series looks at where the airport is now headed: How unprecedented regional booms in business and aviation are increasing demands on the airport and how it is preparing now to meet that challenge.

SANFORD, N.C. — Life has been busy at Raleigh Exec, at times nearly chaotic, with construction projects moving in both directions from its centrally located terminal — which, itself, is relatively new, opening just four years ago.

One recently completed project, a $5.3 million expansion south of the terminal, added new taxiways and infrastructure, enhancing safety for planes moving around the airport and opening up land that will soon accommodate additional hangars to help relieve a long waiting list. On the other side of the terminal, another area developed just a few years ago for large corporate hangars has already leased every space available in its first phase. The second phase is now being designed.

But even those major changes haven’t been enough to handle the current demand. There’s still a waiting list for mid-sized hangars. There’s still demand for large, corporate spaces. And there’s even more coming on the horizon.

Business is Booming

“Triangle business is just booming,” said airport director Bob Heuts, who has been involved in economic development for decades. “This area has always enjoyed a vibrant economy, but there are specific trends happening right now and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see what that will mean for Raleigh Exec.”

To begin, Heuts points to massive manufacturing plants and service companies moving into the region, many almost a stone’s throw from the runway.

Just last year, electric vehicle company VinFast announced its first manufacturing facility in the United States, a massive structure now under construction just 10 miles from Raleigh Exec. VinFast plans to bring a $4 billion investment and 7,500 jobs over five years — not to mention the procession of suppliers and service providers that typically follow. When it was announced, VinFast was the largest economic development project in North Carolina history.

That distinction lasted only a few months. When Wolfspeed announced that its world’s-largest silicon carbide manufacturing facility would be built in the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site, that project became the largest in state history. Wolfspeed brings another 1,800 jobs to its $5 billion plant located 35 uncongested highway miles from Raleigh Exec.

And there’s more. FedEx is moving into the region at a location near VinFast. Bharat Forge opened its new facility a few years ago to manufacture aluminum vehicle components just six miles from the airport.

Michael Smith, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corp., credits Raleigh Exec with helping generate corporate interest in the Triangle region and even helping bring specific companies to his county. As just one example: The airport’s board room — an attractive, accessible and well-equipped space — was the site of his initial meetings with several clients including VinFast and Wolfspeed, two mega-projects that eventually chose Chatham.

“Raleigh Exec is a first-class airport and a wonderful door to our region,” he said. “The airport is already important to economic development throughout the Triangle, especially with so many companies moving here, and it’s only going to become more essential in years to come.”

Aviation is Booming, Too

Heuts also points to changes happening right now at Raleigh-Durham International that will have a direct impact on Raleigh Exec, which is designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a reliever airport to help reduce congestion at the larger commercial airport. Essentially, RDU is experiencing a boom of its own, struggling to keep up with demand for passenger travel. They’re announcing new passenger routes every month and are even replacing their primary runway with a longer one that can allow existing airlines to carry more passengers and cargo on larger planes.

“As more resources at RDU are directed toward passenger travel, that makes things more challenging there for general aviation,” Heuts said, referring to the kind of recreational, business and corporate flights that Raleigh Exec serves. “That means we expect more demand not only from the enormous economic expansion in our region, but also from companies now based at RDU that may find it easier to operate from Raleigh Exec.”

Preparing For the Boom

With all of the current demand and even more growth on the horizon, it’s no surprise that Raleigh Exec is already preparing for the future. Part of that includes expanding the airport’s footprint to provide more space for airport development and to maintain safety in and around the airport. Safety, as Heuts often points out, is always the first priority.

About 600 acres of land are now being added to the airport’s current 700-acre site. That would eventually bring the total size of Raleigh Exec to somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 acres, which was the original plan when the airport was created and first opened in 1999, almost a quarter century ago.

Heuts said this particular airport location was selected for its easy access to the Triangle and because it could be expanded when the time came. And that time has arrived. Expanding now, while the area is still rural and sparsely populated, also makes sure dense development doesn’t come too close to expanding airport operations. Safety is a real concern at many airports, where commercial parks and housing developments have inched closer to airport borders and, at times, can be smashed up against protective fences — a situation that isn’t good for anyone.

Already, Raleigh Exec has received a $9 million grant to acquire some of the needed land and more will be coming later this year. Land parcels are going through the statutory process of land acquisition right now — a series of appraisals, studies and reports — and then will be assessed as part of state requirements by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Once completed, written offers can be issued and purchases made.

The sale of one small tract has already closed. Heuts said the couple living there sold the land, but will continue to live on it for years to come. Another tract of land is in the early phase of acquisition and part of a larger, 200- to 300-acre tract that could eventually be used for a planned air traffic control tower, a new location for the airport’s specialized weather system and a parallel taxiway to move planes around the runway. That taxiway was part of an updated airport layout plan published six years ago and opens new locations to build additional hangars.

If nothing happens, there’s a worst-case scenario that could require relocating the airport, which would be especially disruptive. But everyone is working now to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future.

As the leader of Lee County’s economic development agency, Sanford Area Growth Alliance (SAGA) CEO Jimmy Randolph believes the airport is a unique asset and a competitive advantage for the community that should be protected.

“For many years, SAGA has been an advocate for protection and strategic expansion of the airport property,” he said. “Frankly, we did not purchase enough land in the beginning. Raleigh Exec is too valuable a tool as we grow our local tax base to risk compromising its future now.

“Preserving the investment taxpayers have made over the past 25-plus years means making some tough choices today to acquire land that might be much more expensive in the future. We’ve learned important lessons from other regional airports; being penny-wise and pound foolish is not an option.”

With such a vibrant Triangle region, there’s no doubt that needs will continue to evolve and grow. But that’s been the recent history for an airport that has been constantly expanding now for more than a decade. With its past experience and recent success, it appears that Raleigh Exec is up for the challenge.

NEXT IN THE SERIES: While Raleigh Exec is expanding to meet the region’s economic vitality, the airport is also using its growth to serve the broader Triangle community.

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About Raleigh Exec
Billed as a premier corporate gateway to the Research Triangle, Raleigh Exec Jetport is a general aviation airport serving corporate and recreational flights in a region of central North Carolina that includes Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Sanford and the Research Triangle Park. Raleigh Exec operates on 700 acres off of U.S. 1, just 15 miles from the Raleigh Outer Beltline, and is home to corporate aircraft, the North Carolina Forest Service, many aviation-related businesses and one of the nation’s largest and most respected flying clubs. More information is available at raleighexec.com.

Corporate hangars have been in high demand, with the first phase of Raleigh Exec’s North Terminal development fully leased and the second phase now being designed. (Photo by Chip Pate)
With steady development over the years to increase capacity and services, Raleigh Exec regularly welcomes the largest corporate jets. The airport’s increasing popularity, along with a business and aviation boom in the Triangle Region, are driving the latest expansion. (Photo by Chip Pate)