As the CEO of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority spoke Thursday of the importance of a strong and growing airport, protesters gathered outside to object to parts of the airport’s proposed 25-year plan for growth.
Nearly 20 hikers and cyclists held up signs that said “Rethink Vision 2040” and “Keep RDU Green” outside the Raleigh Convention Center. The signs referred to the airport’s 18-month master planning process, called Vision 2040, that is expected to be completed later this year.
They hoped to gain the attention of Michael Landguth, president and CEO of the airport authority, who was speaking at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s annual meeting. Many of the protesters were from two area nonprofits – Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and The Umstead Coalition – who have ramped up their efforts to raise awareness about the airport’s plan since June.
They’re just some of the 5,000 people who have signed an online petition asking the airport authority to preserve 611 acres of forested land and recreational trails between Lake Crabtree County Park and William B. Umstead State Park.
In an interview, Landguth said the hundreds of acres in question could one day be necessary for the development of uses like offices or hotels to help pay for the airport’s infrastructure needs as it serves more customers.
The authority must create the master plan according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, but airport representatives have said that doesn’t mean all of the property will be built out anytime soon.
Landguth emphasized the airport authority’s willingness to work with the community as it develops the 25-year plan, but said the airport has obligations it must meet that date back to the 1940s, when the military turned the airport over to the airport authority.
“Federal requirements say that land should be for aeronautical use or produce income to pay for critical infrastructure,” he said. “That’s what we agreed to in 1948 when we took a $2.2 million asset and paid $65,000 for it.”
But Landguth said the airport authority still hopes to find a solution that benefits both the airport and the community.
“So as long as we can meet those federal requirements and we can work with the community on the solutions, we are more than willing,” he said.
Natalie Lew, a cyclist in Raleigh, and other area hikers and bikers think they have a solution that will make that happen. They have proposed using the 600 acres for an Urban Trails Center, with more than 50 miles of trails surrounded by commercial development, such as bike shops, restaurants and hotels, that would cater to outdoor enthusiasts.
“We are not trying to work against the airport,” Lew said. “We know they need to make money, but we feel like with this urban trails center concept that we have would create sustainable business for them and would benefit the entire community.”
Inside the convention center, Landguth spoke to government and business leaders and focused on a different facet of the airport – its growth within the aeronautical core.
“Site selectors, event planners and tourists look for strong air service and world-class facilities, and so our interests are totally aligned,” he said. “A stronger airport means a stronger tourism business, more hotel stays, more dinners.”
The airport generates an estimated total economic impact of $8.5 billion, sustains 20,000 jobs and generates $148 million in state and local tax revenues, Landguth said.
While the airport saw a drop in customers during the recession, “nine years later, we do see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. The airport expects to serve more than 10 million customers this year – the most customers served since 2007.
But the airport’s “big win,” he said, was the addition of Delta’s nonstop flight to Paris in May. International flights are expected to generate $1.4 billion of economic impact over 25 years of service, he said.
“Delta wouldn’t be making that type of investment if they didn’t think there was a great opportunity for them,” he said in an interview.
This success means an expanding list of infrastructure demands that will mean significant capital funding needs in the future.
The airport expects it will have to rebuild its longest runway – a crucial piece to allow for international travel – in the next three to five years. It also expects to build a new consolidated rental car facility and will need 23 new gates in the next 25 years.
“This growth will not come without challenges,” Landguth said. “We need to work together to ensure we have facilities to support the aviation needs of our community and the visitors we want to attract to this region.”
The airport will face challenges in finding the funds; the airport is mostly self-sustaining and receives only $550,000 in federal and state grants every year.
“We are looking for other opportunities [for] how we can develop additional sources of revenue by providing new products and services to our consumers,” he said. “That’s part of the master planning process ... to sort through those details.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the airport generates an estimated total economic impact of $8.5 million. It generates $8.5 billion.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon