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Mayors: Open up airport debate

Charlotte’s former mayors had differing views Tuesday on the fight over control of Charlotte’s airport. But they generally agreed it should have been handled more openly.

The debate over whether to shift control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent authority sparked perhaps the sharpest exchange of the night as the city’s five living former mayors gathered to talk about the challenges facing the Queen City.

Gov. Pat McCrory, Richard Vinroot, Sue Myrick, Harvey Gantt and Eddie Knox drew a full house for the public forum at Central Piedmont Community College, sponsored by the Observer and PNC Bank.

Gantt said the move to take the airport from city control felt like a “heist.” Vinroot said the process “stinks.”

The airport debate took center stage when moderator Steve Crump of WBTV asked the audience if they felt the city should keep control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. A majority raised their hands.

Then Crump asked the mayors if they thought the city should keep control. Knox and Gantt raised their hands. Myrick, Vinroot and McCrory didn’t.

The N.C. Senate has passed a bill that would give control of the airport to a regional authority. The city has vigorously opposed the legislation, which awaits action in the House.

Local business leaders pressed for the legislation, largely behind the scenes. The bill was put forward by two Republican legislators from Matthews.

Gantt said he didn’t like the way the legislation came about. Vinroot said he sees the airport as a regional asset, and said an authority with heavy Charlotte representation would be best. But he, too, criticized the process by which the authority plan emerged.

Gantt said “the Charlotte way” would have been for local leaders to convene a task force and discuss their differences, not propose legislation in Raleigh.

“What I resent most, governor, is the way you went about trying to bring about change,” Gantt said, addressing McCrory. “I thought it was a high degree of disrespect to the citizens of Charlotte.”

Vinroot interjected: “In fairness, this is not Pat’s idea.”

McCrory has previously said he wasn’t involved with the authority discussion, and had declined to say whether he supported the bill.

He said Tuesday that the bill emerged from the concerns of Charlotte business leaders, who pressed their lawmakers for legislation.

“This is a fight within Charlotte,” he said. “It needs to be handled better.”

The mayors shared their thoughts on a range of issues during the 1 1/2-hour forum.

Mayor Anthony Foxx, in the nation’s capital for confirmation hearings Wednesday on his nomination as U.S. transportation secretary, greeted the crowd in a prerecorded video.

“Our city is at a critical juncture in its history,” said Foxx. “For years we’ve grown our city and our tax base through annexation. That’s no longer possible.”

With three decades of experience as mayor among them, the five former Charlotte mayors said they see a city standing on the brink of great promise, but also one facing troubling social, economic and political challenges.

And they said Charlotte is facing those challenges at a time when the historically close relationship between its business and political elites seems to have frayed.

Knox recalled how business leaders like former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl helped him get financing for the CrimeStoppers program. Vinroot recalled how he and McColl hatched a plan for the city’s uptown transit mall during a cocktail party, when McColl offered to have the bank build it if the city provided the land.

“I think that’s what might be falling aside,” Knox said. “We don’t involve the business community as much as we used to.”

But Gantt said it might be harder to be mayor today. He noted the growing diversity of Charlotte’s population, and the recent upheaval caused by the recession.

“There’s a lot of fear out there. A lot of people are concerned,” he said. “We do have a high unemployment rate. The next mayor and the towns around us have to work harder.”

Myrick said politics have gotten meaner and more partisan in Charlotte – an assertion the other mayors agreed with.

“We need to be nice again,” she said.

The mayors also discussed the challenge of growing the tax base at a time when the city’s borders have swallowed almost all of Mecklenburg County. They said the city must find ways to develop its closer-in neighborhoods, and redevelop economically lagging areas in east and west Charlotte.

The forum came as the campaign to succeed Foxx in the mayor’s office is cranking up. Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon on Tuesday announced that he is running. He could be seen at the forum shaking hands with Edwin Peacock, the lone Republican who has announced his candidacy.

Crump asked what the next mayor should make his or her first task once in office.

Myrick said the next mayor has to pull people together. “That’s got to happen again.”

Vinroot’s advice: Articulate a clear agenda, “put it on your desk,” and attend to it daily.

Said McCrory: “Build relationships and get out of the office ... the bubble (of government) can be a trap.”

Gantt agreed, adding: “Not just with the folks who are your cheerleaders ... how about going with the folks who didn’t vote for you.”

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