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Charlotte airport’s next big hire: Someone to boost development

Charlotte’s airport is growing fast, with plans for a fourth parallel runway and dozens more gates. But what the airport is planning to do around its borders could be just as important.

The airport is hiring a new economic affairs manager whose job will focus on luring companies that want to locate at or near Charlotte Douglas International. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said he’s preparing to interview candidates and hopes to fill the position in the next few weeks.

Although economic developers regularly cite the airport’s hundreds of daily flights and status as American Airlines’ second-busiest hub when they’re pitching the city to companies, this new position means Charlotte Douglas will be jumping into the economic development game more directly.

“The real intent of that job is to help us identify new business leads, to coordinate with our regional partners ... and then to actively go out and seek new businesses for those properties,” said Cagle, to whom the new employee would report.

The airport will focus on luring industrial, warehouse and logistics companies that want to locate nearby. Not only might such companies bring jobs and growth, they’re also a more compatible use near the airport than residential subdivisions full of people who don’t want jet noise.

Norfolk Southern opened an intermodal rail yard at the airport in December 2013 between two runways, switching cargo between trains and trucks. The rail company pays the airport $1 million in rent a year, and Charlotte Douglas could, in theory, make more money by charging other companies that want to open facilities on its property.

That could help keep costs low for the passenger carriers – mainly American Airlines – who operate at Charlotte Douglas.

“We do think it makes a lot of sense for the land we control to be pursuing those kinds of opportunities,” said Cagle. The airport is also buying a 370-acre neighborhood south of the western runway, where it plans to raze the houses and market the land to businesses.

Charlotte Regional Partnership CEO Ronnie Bryant said there is “significant interest” from companies that want to locate around the airport and rail yard.

“I welcome the airport’s point person to help us sort through the options in that area,” said Bryant.

Land beckons to the west

Another focus for the new economic affairs manager at Charlotte Douglas will be the land west of the airport. Known as Dixie Berryhill, the stretch lies sandwiched between Interstate 485 and the Catawba River. Lacking sewer service and many roads, the more than 5,000 hilly acres have remained largely undeveloped, one of the last major open stretches in Charlotte.

The city is planning to widen Dixie River Road and lengthen Garrison Road for almost $45 million as part of a plan to lure private developers by bringing more infrastructure. Cagle said Charlotte Douglas should play a key role in encouraging and coordinating the development of Dixie Berryhill.

“That’s where our connection with the city and the private sector really starts to come to the forefront,” said Cagle. “We know there’s a lot of interest from the private sector, from private developers in that area and we think that’s great.”

Crescent Communities is the area’s largest private landowner, with about 1,000 acres. Crescent CEO Todd Mansfield said the company is exploring opportunities for a large, mixed-use development in the area. Plans should start to come into focus in 12 to 18 months, he said.

“It’s one of a kind,” Mansfield said of the land. “This is a blank canvas in an extraordinarily strategic location.”

He said Crescent is talking with the city and other interested parties to define the best plan. He said the area could have similarities to Ballantyne, another “edge city” that grew on thousands of largely vacant acres.

Johnny Harris and his Lincoln Harris development company considered building a mixed-use development similar to Crystal City, a group of apartment buildings, hotels, offices and stores near Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. They put those plans on hold after the recession.

Nothing has materialized yet, but the buzz hasn’t died down.

“We get an awful lot of tire-kickers, middlemen that are wanting to buy and flip it,” said Wayne Cooper, who owns 80 acres in Dixie Berryhill. He said many of the inquiries are from people looking to build warehouse space. “There’s an awful lot of interest.”

Cooper said he’s remained in contact with Harris about the possible development.

“We’re still talking to Johnny, and he’s very serious about this thing,” said Cooper. Harris didn’t return a message seeking comment.

Asked why the airport boom hasn’t boomed yet, Cagle said it will likely be years before the full extent of development around Charlotte Douglas is realized. With the rail yard open for little more than a full year, he said it’s become clear the airport needs to promote development more aggressively.

“It is a long game,” said Cagle. “I think 12 months is enough to let us know that certainly we need to do more, and we’re taking actions.”