By Sarah Nagem
As the United States ramped up its World War II efforts in the early 1940s, Fort Bragg grew to become the largest Army post in the country, accommodating 60,000 soldiers.
But lesser-known military training was taking place about 40 miles southwest of Fort Bragg, at what is now the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport. Up to 10,000 soldiers were stationed at the site, which became the largest glider pilot training base in the world, according to airport history.
At the time, the Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base in Scotland County operated much like a city, said Seth Hatchell, assistant director of the airport.
“They had a little movie theater out here,” he said. “They had their own chapel that actually still exists today.”
About 80 years later, the airport still caters to the military, including the U.S. Army Golden Knights, who parachute at the site regularly.
But now leaders hope the airport, and its large industrial park that’s already home to about a dozen businesses, will attract more companies that need to land and house jets, and also more private pilots who take to the skies for fun.
With upgrades and expansion, the idea is for the airport and industrial park to serve as a business hub and economic driver for southeastern North Carolina.
“I think we’ve all understood that the airport is an under-utilized resource for our region,” said Guy McCook, chairman of the airport commission.
With help from state Sen. Tom McInnis, a Republican who represents Anson, Moore, Richland and Scotland counties, the airport is set to get $8 million in state funding to extend one of its three runways from 6,500 to 8,500 feet.
That will make it the eighth longest runway in the state, with the ability to handle any aircraft, Hatchell said.
Laurinburg-Maxton will be only the fifth airport in the state with a runway of that length, Hatchell added.
Could Global TransPark be a guide?
In the 1990s, North Carolina leaders envisioned a multi-modal manufacturing and distribution hub that would spur economic development and help carry the state into the 21st century.
The result was the North Carolina Global TransPark, a 2,500-acre business park in the Lenoir County city of Kinston.
The Laurinburg-Maxton Airport was the runner-up for the project, McCook said.
“At the time, we felt like that decision was made based more on politics than it was on facilities and location,” he said. “Having said that, we think we are well suited to be a major industrial park.”
Airport leaders are working with the state Department of Commerce to create a strategic plan that could be finished by the end of the year. Hatchell said the Global TransPark could serve as a guide.
“I haven’t had a chance to go tour it, but that’s something that’s been on my wish list for a couple months now,” he said. “Especially with our industrial park and seeing, OK, what worked for them and what didn’t work for them, and how do we improve on that?”
On its website, the Global TransPark says its “sites and buildings are fully equipped and ready to go to work. From utility planning to advanced telecommunications connectivity, everything you need is in place so you will be up and doing business.”
Hatchell said the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport also has infrastructure in place, including fiber optics and water and sewer.
After World War II ended in 1945, the U.S. Department of Defense gave the base to the Town of Maxton and the City of Laurinburg to serve as a general aviation airport.
The donation also came with a water treatment system, which contributes to much of the airport’s finances, Hatchell said.
Now the aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance need to be addressed, according to McCook.
McCook, a former Scotland County commissioner, was appointed to serve on the airport’s governing board, which was restructured as part of a Senate bill McInnis introduced in 2019. The Laurinburg-Maxton Airport Commission became the Southeast Regional Airport Authority.
The idea, leaders say, is to think bigger than Scotland County. That includes the airport’s efforts to become a designated foreign-trade zone, which can simplify some customs procedures.
The airport still owns about 3,000 acres, Hatchell said, and about 1,000 acres are “prime property.”
“We just want to be the best airport we can be, and we want to try to find as many resources — financial and otherwise — to try to grow into something that can be a significant asset to the communities,” McCook said.
Hatchell, 23, said he is excited for the airport’s future. After growing up in Scotland County, he attended Liberty University in Virginia, where he studied aviation.
He never dreamed he could return and pursue a career. Now, he said, he’s excited to be part of something that could drive economic development.
“Being my hometown, it just gives me that much more of a reason to make it happen, to go the extra mile to bring in industry and growth to Scotland County,” he said. “And being from here, you kind of wear it with a badge of honor.”