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Charlotte airport fight pits city against region

By Steve Harrison, Adam Bell and Ely Portillo
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Feds looking into US Airways tarmac delays at CLT
  • Public hearing

    Charlotte city officials will hold a forum to listen to residents’ thoughts about the possible airport authority. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Room 267 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center uptown.



Some Charlotte elected officials said they feel betrayed by neighboring counties whose leaders are backing an independent authority to run the Charlotte airport, calling them hypocrites for making sure their own airports aren’t also transferred.

Charlotte officials are so upset that some have speculated about no longer partnering with their neighbors or supporting their local projects.

“It makes you not want to get involved in regional efforts at all,” said Charlotte City Council member David Howard, a Democrat. “I’m extremely discouraged. I feel betrayed.”

Howard said he wondered whether Charlotte should continue to support the construction of the Garden Parkway and the Monroe Connector-Bypass – two toll roads that are proposed for Gaston and Union counties.

Both of those counties passed resolutions in favor of an N.C. Senate bill that would transfer Charlotte Douglas International from the city of Charlotte to an authority, as did Iredell and Lincoln counties.

Cabarrus County is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to support the authority.

“What will we do for (the counties) now that they have shown us they don’t care about us?” asked Democrat Claire Fallon in an interview Thursday. “It’s not only a betrayal, it’s a lack of ethics.”

Fallon continued: “How do you undermine other public officials?”

Under the bill, all five counties would be guaranteed an appointment on the 13-member authority board.

The House next month is expected to consider the bill, which has been approved by the Senate.

At a City Council meeting Wednesday, Republican Warren Cooksey said the city should remind neighboring counties about the ways Charlotte helps them. He cited the recent assistance of the Charlotte Fire Department in the search for two children who were killed when a wall of dirt collapsed on them at a home construction site in Lincoln County.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx was asked Thursday whether he felt the counties were being hypocritical in supporting the bill.

“No question,” Foxx said.

He added: “What’s happened as a result of a group of four of five unnamed people in the city pulling on a string of yarn, is that the airport, a $12 billion asset, and our regional equilibrium is unraveling right in front of us.”

County concerns

Commissioners in Lincoln and Iredell are concerned about whether their local airports could also be managed by the proposed authority. They got assurances that the regional airports will still be locally controlled.

Cabarrus, Gaston and Union counties each have a municipal airport that handles more than 100 planes a day. Those airports, along with Lincoln County’s airport, serve as relief for Charlotte Douglas and handle corporate traffic.

Lincoln board Chairman Alex Patton and Iredell board Chairman Steve Johnson dismissed claims of hypocrisy.

“We didn’t start this. All we’re doing is responding to what’s already happening,” Patton said. “It would be different if Lincoln County had asked for this legislation.”

Patton stressed that the county only got involved after the legislation was approved by the state Senate. The county saw a need to ensure the bill’s language did not impact the local airport in Lincolnton. He also said while the Lincolnton airport mainly affects the county, decisions for Charlotte Douglas are felt across the entire region.

“I understand their frustration but they have to see the regional picture. Nobody was out to get them,” Patton said.

Johnson agreed.

Officials from the four counties that approved resolutions said they did not contact Charlotte officials before voting.

But Johnson said some people in Charlotte, including Charlotte airport advisory board Chairman Shawn Dorsch, approached Iredell with concerns about the city’s ability to manage the financial aspects of Charlotte Douglas. “They asked us to help,” he said.

Johnson said he has been told that the House bill will make it clear that only Charlotte Douglas would be impacted. That would allow Statesville Regional Airport to remain owned by the city of Statesville.

Cabarrus commissioner Steve Morris said he isn’t likely to support the resolution Monday in favor of the authority. He said he isn’t convinced that the bill will exempt local airports – including Concord Regional Airport – from authority control.

“That’s one of the factors, that’s the more selfish one,” Morris said.

But he added that he isn’t comfortable with the idea of the state taking city-owned property and transferring it to an authority.

“The overall precedent that it sets … that’s not something I feel comfortable with,” Morris said.

City study

On Thursday, consultant Bob Hazel told the city’s airport governance study committee that other counties are interested in helping oversee the airport.

“There’s clearly an interest in managing the airport as a regional asset, rather than a city asset,” said Hazel, a consultant with Oliver Wyman who was hired by Charlotte to look into the airport authority effort.

Hazel said people around the region want to play a part in governing the airport because Charlotte Douglas is viewed as “the most important economic engine for the region.”

Patton, of Lincoln County, said he would like to see someone on the regional board who is knowledgeable about Charlotte Douglas and the aviation industry. “The airport has been run well over the years and we want that to continue,” he added. “Our only goal is that the airport remain a viable asset for the region.”

Charlotte Douglas has a widespread impact on the surrounding areas, according to the Charlotte Regional Partnership. More than 20,000 people work at the airport, making it one of the largest employers. An additional 100,000 jobs in the region rely directly or indirectly on the airport, according to an estimate from the Urban Institute.

Charlotte officials are glum about their chances of keeping Charlotte Douglas. Foxx said Wednesday that the General Assembly legislation had a “whiff of inevitability.”

At a budget meeting Wednesday, Republican council member Andy Dulin lashed out at Dorsch, the chair of the council-appointed airport advisory committee.

Johnson, the Iredell board chairman, told the Observer that Dorsch and others told him the authority bill would be changed so that only Charlotte Douglas would be impacted. Dorsch also had emailed state legislators talking points that advanced the cause of an airport authority.

Dulin called Dorsch a “chump” and said he should be fired.

During the meeting, Foxx said he didn’t want to remove Dorsch because it would play into a narrative that the city is micromanaging the airport.

Fallon disagreed Thursday.

“I would have fired him on the spot,” she said.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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