Future uncertain, but airport commission takes shape

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by ELY PORTILLO / The Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on September 5, 2013 at 10:41 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Charlotte Douglas International Airport Commission is taking shape even as its legal future hangs in doubt, with two counties appointing members and three more soliciting applications.

State legislators have also appointed two local businesspeople, including developer Johnny Harris, to an oversight committee designed to monitor and report on the commission’s activities.

The appointments come while Charlotte is still fighting to retain the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration will decide whether the new commission can assume control of the airport.

Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, who is representing the commission and former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, told officials in Mecklenburg and neighboring counties they should consider making their appointments before the statutory deadline, Oct. 1.

“I knew that they hadn’t probably been thinking about that,” Vinroot said.

The N.C. General Assembly passed a law this session creating a new, 13-member commission to run Charlotte Douglas, although the city would retain ownership of the airport’s assets. But the city got a judge to issue an injunction blocking the law’s implementation until the FAA rules.

Seven of the members would be appointed by the Charlotte City Council and the mayor, while the six remaining seats would be filled with appointments by county commissioners in Mecklenburg and the five surrounding counties.

A five-member oversight committee – separate from the commission – includes members appointed by the governor, president pro tem of the state Senate, speaker of the N.C. House, the Charlotte mayor and the City Council.

Here’s where the appointments stand:

• Gaston County appointed county commissioner Chad Brown to the airport commission. Brown, who sells architectural coatings for PPG Industries, said he thinks the commission will help the airport and surrounding counties grow.

“I hope that Charlotte doesn’t feel that they’re getting the slight on this,” Brown said. “I think this is just a way for the outlying areas to help Charlotte grow.” Brown said that Gaston’s resources, such as abundant land, could be more effectively leveraged to help lure businesses to the area under a regional airport commission.

“I just hope that everybody would try to play nice,” he said.

• Iredell commissioners appointed Jim Lawton, a former Statesville City Council member and president of Kivett Oil Co. Lawton couldn’t be reached for comment.

• Cabarrus County commissioners are considering three candidates and will make their decision in the coming weeks. One of the candidates is Rick Cloutier, executive director of Concord Regional Airport. The airport recently announced it will start commercial passenger service for the first time, with flights to Orlando, Fla., by Allegiant Air.

Cloutier said Concord Regional doesn’t compete with Charlotte Douglas, and his presence on the commission would help Charlotte because of his more than 20 years of aviation experience.

“I don’t think it’s any conflict of interest,” Cloutier said. He said that if he’s elected, one of his goals will be to protect Concord’s airport. Under the bill, Concord Regional – and any of the other counties’ airports – could be acquired by the Charlotte airport commission, with the consent of the county commissioners.

• Mecklenburg and Union counties are both soliciting applications for people to serve on the commission. Pat Cotham, chairwoman of the Mecklenburg commission, said she hasn’t decided whether the county will actually appoint someone by the Oct. 1 deadline but wants to get candidates ready in case they need to.

“We didn’t want something to happen fast and ... the county wouldn’t have representation,” Cotham said. She said the issue is “awkward” for commissioners.

“This is the city’s deal,” she said. “We’ve got enough problems without picking up the airport’s problems.”

• Lincoln County hasn’t scheduled any votes on the issue, County Manager Tracy Jackson said.

• The Charlotte City Council and Mayor Patsy Kinsey have yet to make any of their appointments. Spokesman Al Killeffer said “it hasn’t been determined” whether the city and mayor will make their appointments at the scheduled Sept. 16 or Sept. 23 meetings.

• House Speaker Thom Tillis has appointed Muriel Sheubrooks, a retired partner at Greater Carolinas Real Estate Services, to serve on the oversight committee. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has appointed developer Johnny Harris – a vocal supporter of both Orr and removing the airport from city control – to the committee. Both are also directors of Piedmont Natural Gas.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the FAA said Thursday that the agency hasn’t issued any ruling on whether the commission will be allowed to run the airport.

Vinroot said he and Orr continue to lobby the FAA to approve the commission. He said they sent a letter to the FAA two weeks ago and didn’t hear back, so they called the federal agency Thursday. Vinroot said they had a telephone discussion with officials about the airport commission.

“We don’t detect that they’re moving quickly. We hope they are, but we just don’t know,” Vinroot said.

Orr is legally the executive director of the commission and is receiving his $211,041 salary from airport revenues. He was ousted as Charlotte’s aviation director during the legislative fight and Interim Director Brent Cagle is currently overseeing Charlotte Douglas. But Orr, 72, can return to run Charlotte Douglas if the city loses its legal fight and the commission is allowed to operate.

Orr told the Observer last week that he is spending his days “working and worrying.”

The current Airport Advisory Committee, a volunteer community group that met monthly to advise Orr and the City Council, hasn’t met since the commission bill passed. Under the bill, the group would oversee the airport until the commission was appointed.

Kinsey told the group to stop meeting at the end of July.

“Until there is more clarity around the legal status of the legislation, we request the suspension of all AAC meetings until further notice,” Kinsey said in a July 30 email to the committee’s chairman.

Cotham called the suspension of the advisory committee meetings “troubling” and said that was another reason Mecklenburg commissioners need to be ready to appoint someone fast to the new commission.

“The counties are hearing so many different things,” Cotham said.

“We kind of decided just to be ready.”

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