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Rise of the Aerotropolis: the future of the Triad?

by Amy Kingsley

Hear the word “aerotropolis” and try not to think about spaceships, hover cars or yogic levitation.

That associative impediment is one of the challenges facing the Piedmont Triad’s business set, which has adopted the expression to brand the region’s latest economic development initiative.

Coined in 2000 by UNC-Chapel Hill business professor John Kasarda, the term aerotropolis actually refers to municipal-style development that crops up around major cargo airports. And instead of space-age amenities, proponents of the aerotropolis concept hope the term will trigger visions of dollar signs among residents, investors and civic leaders.

The Piedmont Triad Partnership, a regional economic development agency, engaged Kasarda to study the possibility of turning Piedmont Triad International Airport into an aerotropolis. In his report, which he released in June, Kasarda reported that the region is uniquely positioned to become a logistics and transportation hub.

“Most of us who’ve spent any time with this believe this is going to happen,” said Don Kirkman, president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership.

Kirkman explained the aerotropolis concept to the crowd at the Oct. 17 One Guilford symposium. According to the Kasarda report, an aerotropolis could generate as many as 19,000 jobs in the next 18 years and 100,000 jobs in the next 35 years.

Piedmont Triad International’s location near the Interstates 40 and 85 arteries appeals to companies that increasingly rely on internet sales. Products that pass through the airport can be easily moved up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard and west toward the center of the country. Deepwater ports on the North Carolina coast are only a five-hour drive away.

The aerotropolis concept is anchored by the FedEx Mid-Atlantic hub, which is scheduled to open its first phase next year. Regional leaders should capitalize on the proximity of the shipping center by luring businesses to the area that would lean on such a resource, Kasarda wrote. One example is Polo.com, which is building a warehouse in High Point close to the new FedEx hub.

In his report, Kasarda described a number of airports in the United States that have achieved aerotropolis status. Cargo hubs in Memphis, Tenn.; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio and Alliance, Texas have become significant economic engines for their communities, he wrote.

An emphasis on transportation and logistics may benefit the area’s economic development, but at a cost. The planes and cargo trucks intrinsic to the shipping industry will contribute carbon and other emissions to the local atmosphere.

Columbus, Ohio – home of Rickenbacker Airport – has struggled with air quality. The EPA has designated the city in non-attainment for its ozone and particle pollution. It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact sources of the city’s pollution, said Mike Riggleman of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Like a lot of other cities with air quality issues, Columbus’ pollution comes from a combination of industrial sources and vehicles, he said.

“In general I would say the more cars and trucks are on the road, the more pollution,” Riggleman said.

The Piedmont Triad has had its own troubles with air pollution, but has recently reduced ground level ozone to levels that comply with federal guidelines. The punishment for failing to do so can include the loss of federal highway funds – which would effectively stifle plans to turn the area into a transportation hub.

Kasarda’s report mentioned environmental sustainability, although he didn’t elaborate on how other hubs have limited environmental impacts. In fact, several of the airports mentioned in the Kasarda report are located in regions plagued by air pollution, including southern California and Dallas-Fort Worth.

“It’s realistic to expect that as this area grows, you’re going to see additional cars and trucks on the road,” Kirkman said. “There will be emissions from those cars and trucks, but at the same time we are moving away from traditional smokestack industries like furniture and textiles. So we are not necessarily going to see a net increase in pollution.”

Kirkman said the Piedmont Triad Partnership would work together with transportation planners to devise an efficient highway system. Flowing traffic contributes fewer pollutants than gridlock, he said.

The federal government approved an environmental impact statement that included noise cones and pollution estimates when they signed off on the FedEx hub. At a breakout session at the One Guilford conference, citizens sounded more concerns about water supply than air quality.

Of course, concerns about the impact of an aerotropolis on the Piedmont Triad’s water supply and ambient air quality might be of the cart-and-horse variety. In order for the area to become an income-generating transportation hub, governmental leaders from across the 11-county area must work together to lure businesses to the airport, Kirkman said.

The Piedmont Triad Partnership has organized a leadership taskforce to bring representatives from different municipalities to the table. Once the group has come up with a cohesive vision, the airport authority would need to buy land and work with city and county officials to rezone land in accordance with aerotropolis standards.

Efforts at similar multi-jurisdictional planning in the Heart of the Triad stalled because of the objections of residents in the rural areas around Kernersville. Plans for an aerotropolis, which is increasingly associated with Heart of the Triad, may run aground on the same shoals of unfavorable popular opinion if stakeholders are not included early enough in the process.

Not every aerotropolis has fared as well as those in Memphis and Columbus. One notable exception mentioned in Kasarda’s report is the Global TransPark in eastern North Carolina.

Kasarda faulted the planners, who located the TransPark in an isolated part of the state in hopes of spurring job growth. Instead, the location became a liability, too far from major roads and infrastructure to appeal to major companies.

Kasarda and Kirkman insist on the inevitability of the airport’s evolution into an aerotropolis. The professor warns that unsustainable development could reduce the positive economic impact of airport expansion.

Throughout his report, Kasarda referred to airports as modern-day rail yards. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Greensboro history knows the town owes its existence to its confluence of train tracks. Now the city’s future may depend on its airport.

“We have a great opportunity to take something that is positive and make it excellent,” Kirkman said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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