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Charlotteans debate airport control at meeting

Emotions ran high at a town hall-style meeting Saturday on the possible transfer of control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to a regional authority.

Charlotte resident Jeremy Johnson organized the meeting at Myers Park Baptist Church to create a venue for Charlotteans to express their opinions on an independent authority, and to hear from local and state leaders caught up in the power struggle.

About 30 people attended the discussion, including three Charlotte City Council members, a pair of North Carolina representatives and Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, who outlined the main points of the legislation that would create the authority.

Charlotte City Council members oppose the plan, but it has strong support from state legislators and elected officials in surrounding counties. Many of the residents at the meeting had similarly divided views and spoke emphatically about them.

Some, such as 61-year-old Mike Gaither, believe the growth of the region and the airport, which is the country’s eighth largest in terms of passenger traffic, requires broader leadership.

“It’s no longer an airport that can be managed as a department of the city,” said Gaither, who serves as general counsel for a Huntersville company.

Jerry Blackmon, a retired state senator who lives in Charlotte, said he thought the airport should be turned over to an independent authority – but only after area residents had a chance to provide input.

The bill to create the authority has already passed the Senate. The House is expected to vote soon after a city-funded study on the proposed legislation is completed.

Others at the forum said they were suspicious of state legislators’ motives in wanting to take the airport from the city. The tone of the meeting escalated as several residents and city officials blasted the legislation as an attempt to control Charlotte’s most important economic asset.

“Would the state be wanting to set up the authority if the airport wasn’t doing well?” resident Mike Gibbons asked.

Council members Andy Dulin, Claire Fallon and Warren Cooksey spoke out against the plan and questioned whether an authority would be able to manage the airport effectively.

State Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, said a regional authority would hurt Mecklenburg County’s ability to invest in innovative transportation initiatives because it would give bordering counties a voice in the airport’s management.

“The surrounding counties have not had the same vision as Mecklenburg,” Alexander said. “We will have to bring them kicking and screaming into the 22nd century.”

During the two-hour meeting, Dulin passed out fact sheets about the city’s management of the airport and praised Johnson, the event organizer, for his efforts.

“This is what’s right about our community,” Dulin said.

Steele: 704-358-5067 on Twitter: @steelecs
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