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Adams company dominates the runway business

Julia Botero

A family business based in a small town in Jefferson County has become a leader across the continent in a business you've probably never thought of.  
Hi-lite Airfield Solutions cleans and marks airport runways, including  those at JFK, and airports in Dallas, Abu-Dhabi and Quito, Ecuador.  This week, the company based in the town of Adams received a $7 million federal loan to grow even bigger.

Inside an airport hanger at the Watertown Airport, people in business suits mingle and pick hors d'oeuvres off passing trays. In the middle of the room, Rhonda McNeely, the co-owner of Hi-lite Airfield Services, is in a silver sparkly dress working the crowd. She remembers back when she was a teenager her high school sweetheart had this great idea.

"My husband and I were dating in high school and we were engaged and he was working for his dad at the time at Hess gas station in Watertown and there was a street sweeper that was for sale and he saw that street sweeper and said I can make money with that," said Rhonda.

That was 1979. Her fiancée, Calvin McNeely, bought that street sweeper and did start making money with it. After the birth of their son, Rhonda teamed up with her husband. Together the couple went on to painting stripes on parking lots. They won some big contracts -- the Salmon Run Mall in Watertown and Fort Drum's airport. Next came highways.

"I can remember him and I out there and just pushing hand stripers for just miles and miles and miles of road," she said.

Still, Rhonda says the business struggled. They ran out of money twice. A few times, they couldn't afford to pay their electric bill.

"There was one point in time when we said maybe we shouldn't be doing this. Maybe we should just pack it up. We've tried this over and over again. But we kept going. "

The perseverance paid off. Calvin's parents took over the business's finances and made sure Rhonda and Calvin didn't go broke again. And soon Calvin's brother John jumped on board too. The family business began to pick up steam.

Fast forward to today. Jefferson County leaders are here celebrating Hi-lite's success.

"When I looked at the McNeely family, the first thing I saw was an enormous commitment to hard work to make something happen," says Don Alexander from the Jefferson County Development Corporation. He helped Hi-lite secure a $7 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's geared toward supporting a business in a rural area that shows promise of creating jobs and boosting the local economy.

"We look at Hi-lite now as a poster child for economic development," he said.

Hi-lite has decided to focus only on airport runways. No more parking lots. The company has 100 employees -- 80 percent from Jefferson County.

Local leaders want to see more North Country businesses like Hi-lite. Assemblywoman Addie Russell told a personal story of a family friend who needed a job. Hi-lite came through.

"And when those announcements come to our communities we all breathe a sigh of release to have a conscientious wonderful employer who cares about people and we are relieved when our young people get to go to work there," Russel said. 

The company will use the loan to hire 10 more workers and buy new painting trucks. In two weeks Hi-lite will paint the runway at Atlanta Hartsfield -- the busiest airport in the world.