Sussex County government broke ground Friday on a long-awaited $4.46 million runway extension project at the Sussex County Airport.

Sussex County government broke ground Friday on a long-awaited $4.46 million runway extension project at the Sussex County Airport.

The yearlong construction project will extend the airport’s main runway by 500 feet, enabling larger aircraft to use the Georgetown facility.

“Today is a wonderful milestone for Sussex County and the state of Delaware,” County Administrator Todd Lawson said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “Our goal here is to create a safer, larger airport while developing jobs and creating a better economy for the county.”

Most of the project’s cost is being funded by the federal government, with the remaining $450,000 being split by the state and the county.

This week, general contractor Mumford & Miller Concrete of Middletown will begin work on new stormwater management facilities, extending the existing taxiway and clearing obstructions. Construction work on the actual runway, along with the addition of a new LED approach lighting system, is slated to begin next year.

“I’m excited for this project and for what it means for economic development in Sussex County,” said Gov. Jack Markell, who attended Friday’s groundbreaking. “There are companies here that want to hire people, and this project is part of a larger effort that will allow them to do that. I can’t wait to come back here for the ribbon cutting.”

The runway extension project that began this week is planned to be the first in a two-part expansion with a second, 500-foot addition planned in the next five years. The two extensions would make the runway 6,000 feet long.

“The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that 5,500 feet of runway is the optimal length we need for the aircraft landing at the airport today,” County airport manager Jim Hickin said. “So this first 500-foot extension project is very important to us by itself, in addition to getting us closer to that 6,000 feet.”

The total cost of a second extension is estimated at $20 million with up to $7 million needed to realign Park Avenue to accommodate that project. The state budgeted $800,000 in this year’s budget for design work and environmental studies for the realignment of the roadway.

The state would need to acquire about 50 acres of fields and woodland before construction of the new roadway could begin.

In March, the Delaware Infrastructure Investment Committee approved a $3.7 million grant from the New Jobs Infrastructure Fund to help fund the second 500-foot runway extension. However, that money is contingent upon the approval of additional federal highway dollars to fund the Park Avenue realignment.

County officials believe that expanding the runway will translate into more jobs, especially for the 16 existing businesses at the Airport Industrial Park, which currently employ about 900 people.

One of the biggest beneficiaries would be industrial park tenant PATS Aircraft Systems, which builds and installs auxiliary fuel systems and custom interiors in private aircraft.

Currently, the runway at the Sussex County Airport can handle smaller aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 737. But with the addition of another 1,000 feet, aircraft as large at the Boeing 757 would be able to land there, which county officials say would allow PATS to expand its client base and add onto its current workforce of about 400.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) said the cooperation among the county, state and federal to bring the runway expansion project to this point is a metaphor for the way things are get done in Delaware.

“It took all of us working together,” he said. “We’re going down the runway picking up speed and we have the wind under our wings. Now, we’re going to pull back on the yoke and really start to fly.”