Gap in Wilmington International Airport expansion funds could require county bond

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Proposed expansion to the terminal in green; existing structures in grey and brown. (Courtesy Wilmington International Airport)

WILMINGTON – The Wilmington International Airport Authority met last week to discuss an expansion plan which faces a $52 million shortfall. The authority agreed to bring in a consultant to consider a range of funding options, including county and private bonds.

The Wilmington International Airport (ILM) had a record year in 2016. While ILM Director Julie Wilsey told Port City Daily the airport hopes to capitalize on the increase in traffic by lobbying airlines for more flights and direct services, the airport is also reaching the limits of its physical facility, last updated in 2002.

According to Whitney Prease, ILM’s facility manager, “our terminal expansion study, which we conducted in 2012 through 2013, identified some serious pinch points, especially during peak hours.”

Wilsey also said that early morning flight schedule, the busiest time of day for ILM, was near capacity for the existing terminal.

The $88 million expansion plan includes two parking garage structures and an expansion of the existing terminal facility. The plan would add four gates, effectively doubling the capacity of the current terminal.

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Overhead property map view of the proposed expansion: the parking deck (in green) will be built on existing parking, adding 123 spots; the terminal apron (in purple) would add 150,000 square feet of taxing space for aircraft. (Courtesy ILM)

Prease said that while scheduling of flights – including direct service – is the purview of the airlines themselves, keeping pace with the growth of the Wilmington area was an integral part of attracting airline business.

“We always want more flights and more direct service,” Prease said. “But our focus is planning for Wilmington’s future.”

Prease said the airport was looking at potential growth as far ahead as 2033.

While there was broad consensus about the need to expand the airport to handle increasing business, the matter of funding seems less clear.

Thomas Wolfe, chairman of the ILM authority board, said the airport would remain self-sufficient without funding from New Hanover County. Wolfe said “we don’t want to burden our citizens of New Hanover County.”

The airport has historically followed a conservative financial policy. At last year’s joint meeting of the airport authority and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, Wilsey stated that the airport’s low debt for a non-hub airport and good relationship with the FAA’s grant program make it a good candidate for bond programs.

Prease and Bob Campbell, finance director for ILM, told Port City Daily the airport was open to considering all funding options. The airport has secured $33 million in federal funding, but that falls short of covering even the first phase of the plan, which Prease said will cost approximately $44 million. Campbell said “we may have to go to the county for a bond, and essentially borrow money from the county.”

Campbell said the airport authority would also look into a private bond, adding that the funding conversation was in the “very early and preliminary stages” and echoing Chairman Wolfe in saying, “We’ll find a way to get this done.”

While the airport authority enters negotiations with several consulting firms to find the right match for the project, it also awaits FAA approval of environmental impact evaluation paperwork. The airport will hold a public meeting on proposed expansion plan and its environmental impact on Thursday, Feb 16. Prease said he was optimistic that federal approval and funding would both come through, and estimated a groundbreaking in about 20 months, in late 2018.