News: CJ Exclusives

Global TransPark: Flying Erratically and Below the Radar

Conflicting studies, conflicting uses, changing leadership

On June 3, when Charles Edwards took over as the latest executive director of the Global TransPark in Kinston he told The Free Press of Kinston, “It’s like any first day on the job. I’m overwhelmed and trying to figure out what I’ve gotten into.” His comments seem to reflect what so far has been a confusing year for the GTP. There have been conflicting studies, conflicting proposals for the use of the facility, and perhaps most confusing: conflicting and ever-changing leadership.

Conflicting studies

Last year the General Assembly asked the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division to study the transfer of the GTP’s fixed assets and operations from the GTP Authority to another appropriate entity. Sometime during March or April of this year, DOT officials significantly altered a detailed version of the report to exclude negative information about the GTP.

The earlier version of the report weighed advantages and disadvantages for six potential alternative scenarios on the future of the GTP. The final version presented to a legislative committee gave a single recommendation: to assign oversight of the GTP airport to the state Division of Aviation for two years.

The final version was created under the direction of DOT Chief Deputy Secretary Gene Conti, according to DOT Deputy Secretary David King. “It was what Gene wanted,” King said. “He made a judgment that this was responsive to the legislature.”

Conti was appointed vice chairman of the GTP Authority by Gov. Mike Easley on March 27. The final edited version of the report was released May 7, long past its due date of Feb. 15.

The six alternatives discussed in the original version were: (1) to do nothing, with disadvantages including that “to date performance has been less than satisfactory. The political repercussions from this scenario would be very damaging. The Global TransPark is perceived as a major financial liability;” (2) privatize the operation; (3) transfer it to DOT’s Aviation Division; (4) set up a public-private partnership; (5) set up a regional authority; and (6) shut down the existing GTP offices and turn over all fixed assets to the City of Kinston. “Politically, the ramifications of this action would be extreme and potentially disastrous to many elected and appointed individuals,” the document said.

Conflicting uses

For 10 years GTP boosters pushed the project as an all-cargo airport surrounded by just-in-time manufacturing facilities. Now, just as the legislature considers another year of funding, three other ideas are being proposed.

In a March 22 letter to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Bill Williams, director of the DOT’s Aviation Division, proposed that an Air Security Institute (a counterterrorism training center) be established at the GTP. Citing the events of Sept. 11 and the recent formation of the TSA, Williams wrote, “The facilities of the GTP are in place and ready for adaptation to any aviation threat scenario currently being considered.”

Williams also touted the recent completion of an 11,500-foot runway and an updated instrument landing system, which means “training exercises involving jumbo-jet aircraft hostage takeovers in the air can be done in any weather situation at an airport that has real terminal facilities.”

Williams also noted a positive side to Kinston’s remote location. “The location of the proposed TSA Air Security Institute in Kinston, NC, would allow operational scenarios to be conducted under far less scrutiny than at other comparable airports.”

In a separate proposal on April 19, the GTP Authority requested $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to “complement and complete a community-led incentive package designed to bring affordable jet service to the businesses and citizens of a multi-county region spanning Eastern North Carolina.” Officials from the New Bern and Greenville airports say they oppose the funding because it would give the GTP an unfair advantage.

On May 28, the Kinston Convention and Visitor’s bureau sent a delegation to Toronto to offer the GTP as a location for motion pictures. “There’s less of a problem with security here and the airport is relatively tranquil,” Stuart Johnson, president of the Kinston Film Commission, told The Free Press of Kinston.

Who’s in charge?

Ten years ago the General Assembly created the GTP Authority as a state agency located within DOT. According to the general statute, the “Authority shall be located within the DOT, but shall exercise all of its powers… independently of the Secretary of Transportation… subject to the direction and supervision of the Secretary only with respect to the management functions of coordinating and reporting.”

The authority’s board of directors is comprised of 20 members, seven of whom are appointed by the governor. On March 27, Easley appointed himself chairman of the GTP Authority. He named Conti to the board, and Conti was elected vice chairman. As DOT’s chief deputy secretary, Conti reports to the DOT secretary, which appeared to set up a conflict of interest, or overlapping responsibilities in conflict with the law setting up the GTP Authority.

On May 7, when Conti presented the altered version of the GTP study to a legislative committee he said that DOT plans to take over development efforts at the airport. He also told Carolina Journal that legislation was required.

The GTP Authority has also had three executive directors within the last nine months. The directors were Paul Busick, Lonnie Blizzard, and Edwards. Edwards worked on the original feasibility study as well as the GTP master plan. Those studies predicted the GTP would generate 50,000 jobs by the year 2000.

For the past few years Edwards was the North American chief executive officer of CargoLifter, Inc. The German firm had announced plans to erect a $120 million plant that would build large airships at a site in Craven County. The company recently closed its U.S. operation and now it appears to be terminating all operations in Germany.

Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.

2002 Developments at the GTP

• Feb. 15: GTP study due but not received
• March 19: DOT receives and alters GTP study
• March 22: DOT offers GTP to federal government as counter-terrorism training site
• March 27: Paul Busick resigns as executive director
• March 27: Easley names himself GTP Authority chairman and Conti becomes vice chairman
• April 19: GTP applies for $1 million federal grant to restore passenger service to Kinston
• May 7: Conti releases altered GTP study
• May 20: Carolina Journal reports original GTP study
• May 22: Easley announces $3.8 million in federal funding secured for new landing system
• May 28: CargoLifter’s headquarters in Germany declares inability to pay creditors and employees
• May 28: Kinston officials promote GTP as a movie set
• May 31: CargoLifter closes U.S. offices
• June 3: CargoLifter’s U.S. CEO Charles Edwards becomes GTP executive director