Should SC have a voice in Charlotte airport discussion?

dworthington@heraldonline.comApril 28, 2013 

As North Carolina officials loudly argue over who should control Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, their South Carolina counterparts are taking a soft, respectful approach.

South Carolina officials are quietly asking about a proposed airport authority, but are staying largely out of the public dialogue because this is a North Carolina legislative process involving the city of Charlotte, its airport and airport advisory committee, the legislature and nearby counties and cities.

They are mindful too that South Carolina has no direct investment in the airport.

And, they are equally mindful that the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is the airport of choice for residents in York, Lancaster and Chester counties, and that the airport is a crucial component in economic development efforts, especially in York and Lancaster counties.

They don’t want any changes that would harm those efforts.

So Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill has talked with his colleagues in the N.C. Legislature, voicing his concerns and asking what’s the best way for South Carolina to proceed. Hayes wants to know when it’s the right time to jump into this fight.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols is a member of the Regional Conference of Mayors of the Central Carolinas. The group has been involved with the airport debate, but Echols said he is not active in those discussions.

If an authority is created, Echols said York County would be best served with “a seat at the table.”

Britt Blackwell, chairman of the York County Council, said he has talked with some people and there is a high level of interest in any change at the airport. “Understand, we would be thrilled to be part of it,” he said.

The South Carolinian most directly involved is Steve Gedney, senior vice president of the Lancaster and Chester railroad. Gedney is one of two Charlotte Regional Partnership appointees to the airport’s advisory board. He recently began a second two-year term on the board. The board oversee operations of the airport.

Gedney was at last Monday’s Charlotte City Council meeting for the exchange between Mayor Anthony Foxx and Shawn Dorsch, chairman of the advisory board. “It was not a pleasant hour and a half,” Gedney said.

Dorsch was accused of evading Foxx’s questions about his involvement in efforts to create an authority. The next day Foxx removed Dorsch from the advisory board.

Gedney is quick to point out that, as a representative of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, his job is to advocate for economic development for the region. A job created in Charlotte is just as important as a job created in York County for the region’s health, he said.

He agrees that having a South Carolina voice on the airport board is essential. Gedney said he has found airport administrator Jerry Orr to always be receptive to South Carolina concerns.

Mark Faris and Keith Tunnell, the economic developers for York and Lancaster counties respectively, said the proximity of the airport and the services it offers are critical in attracting new businesses. Direct flights to Europe have helped bring companies to York County, Faris said.

Gedney, Faris and Tunnell support the job Orr has done at the airport.

Gedney also said it’s important to understand what the airport offers from a businessman’s perspective. When he has to fly, Gedney isn’t looking for the cheapest flight. He is looking for a direct flight that leaves after breakfast and one that will get him home in time for dinner.

Currently airlines serving the airport fly to 142 destinations, offering 703 daily departures, according to airport information.

It is the sixth-busiest airport in the country, serving more than 41 million passengers last year. It is also the most efficient of large airports with a cost per passenger of $2.28.

“It is vital that we keep the airport as one of the best organized, best run airports in the country,” Tunnell said.

That’s why Gedney, Faris, Tunnell and Echols see no reason to make a change at the airport. The current system works fine, they said.

But if an airport authority is the choice, they want to make sure South Carolina has a voice in the discussions, either officially or unofficially.

If it is done officially, Gedney said, it would likely need approval both in Raleigh and Columbia. It might be time for the two governors, Pat McCrory and Nikki Haley, to talk about the issue, he said.

A consultant’s study paid for by the city of Charlotte said the proposed N.C. airport authority legislation needs broader representation and that representation from neighboring counties should be limited. The proposed 13-member board has members from Gaston, Lincoln, Cabarrus, Iredell and Mecklenburg counties. The city of Charlotte would have two appointees. There also would be two at-large appointees, one of whom presumably could be from South Carolina.

Following the consultant’s recommendations might make it harder for South Carolina and specifically York County to be authority members.

Gedney said the easiest way to keep a South Carolina voice on an airport board would be to give the Charlotte Regional Partnership a seat on a new board. The partnership then could amend its bylaws so that seat would be reserved for its South Carolina members, he said.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •

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