New Charlotte airport economic director focused on growth

Charlotte’s airport has thousands of employees focused on planes, passengers and baggage. Stuart Hair’s job is to focus on everything else.

He’s the airport’s first economic affairs manager, responsible for recruiting companies beyond airlines to locate their facilities at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Hair’s role is an extension of the airport’s plans to move beyond aviation and become a major logistics hub.

“It’s been a whole lot of fun to get up and running,” said Hair, who has held positions with the N.C. Department of Commerce and the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership. A month into his new job, here’s a look at Hair’s new role at Charlotte’s airport.

▪ Why Charlotte Douglas hired an economic developer: Hair, who will make an annual salary of $98,500, is the airport’s first dedicated economic developer. The airport, American Airlines’ second-busiest hub, owns thousands of acres of land besides the runway, terminal and parking lots passengers use. Hair’s mandate is largely to come up with a development strategy for how to use that land.

Beyond the land the airport owns, he said Charlotte Douglas’ zone of influence covers more than 20 square miles, stretching roughly from the Catawba River to Billy Graham Parkway and Interstate 85 to Shopton Road. Prominent developers, including Lincoln Harris, have explored development in the largely vacant tract of land between the airport and the river.

Interim aviation director Brent Cagle said the airport won’t directly spark development of all of that land, however.

“Sometimes I think there’s a misperception that the airport in and of itself should lead development on the west side,” said Cagle. “I think that’s a bit incorrect.”

▪ What he’s focused on: Hair’s first step will be overseeing a new airport area development strategy. Most of the objectives in the old plan, from 1997, have been met, including construction of a third parallel runway and a train-to-truck freight yard by Norfolk Southern that opened in 2013. The new plan should be complete by February, Hair said, and will lay out the airport’s next set of long-term goals.

“It’s time for an update,” said Hair. “Now it’s time to look at what we’re going to do in the surrounding area.” He also will oversee an update of the airport’s annual economic impact.

▪ What type of companies the airport could lure: On the airport property, businesses such as logistics companies, light manufacturing and warehouses would fit, Hair said. North Carolina tried to lure a Boeing plant in 2013, and a 400-acre site at Charlotte Douglas was one of the sites offered to the plane manufacturer.

“We hope to expand that and identify specific complementary uses out of this development strategy,” said Hair. He said he’s been involved in two meetings with potentially interested companies. “How do we take this idea of putting transportation, logistics, distribution facilities, and make it happen?”

▪ Whether continuing uncertainty over who will run Charlotte’s airport hurts long-term planning: Charlotte Douglas is an independently funded department of the city, but the state legislature passed a law in 2013 over the city’s objections transferring control to a new, independent commission. The commission has been mired in legal battles and hasn’t actually started running the airport, but State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, recently said he might revive efforts to instate the commission.

Cagle said that’s not stopping the airport’s planning efforts. “Our goal throughout all of this governance debate, or fight, has been to keep the airport moving forward,” said Cagle. “The governance fight, while it’s distracting at times and bubbles up periodically, it really isn’t standing in the way.”

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