WILMINGTON — A multi-million dollar allocation in the state’s budget could get the ball rolling on a major expansion project for the Wilmington International Airport (ILM).
The $88 million project has been in the works for some time that would add two parking decks and four terminal gates. ILM Director Julie Wilsey said the proposed project would respond to “pinch points” in the airports.
“The airport was built in 1989, pre-9/11. As security measures have increased, we’ve been stealing a little bit of space from here and there to accommodate the latest technology, but we’re running out of room,” Wilsey said.
While this has squeezed the growing volume of passengers – 2016 was ILM’s busiest ever year – into an increasingly smaller and outdated space, there are serious shortages behind the scenes as well.
“So much of what our staff has to do to get your luggage on the plane, in terms of processing and security, happens behind the scenes. We need more room, we need tech upgrades,” Wilsey said.
Funding the expansion
The proposed expansions would alleviate ILM’s space crunch, but in February it became clear that the project faced a $52 million shortfall. It was unclear at the time whether ILM would – or even could – approach New Hanover County for a bond (read more about the issue here).
At the time, there was limited state funding on the table, but proposed budgets in both houses of the General Assembly in Raleigh show a changing attitude.
“We had been receiving $300,000 to $500,000 from the state – that sounds like a lot, it doesn’t go very far with infrastructure, every construction project starts at a million dollars,” Wisley said. “We’re very grateful to our state legislators for changing that. I think they’ve really taken into account our economic impact on the region.”
The Senate’s budget sets aside about $5.9 million per year for two years. The nearly $12 million dollars won’t fully fund the project, but it would– along with Federal Aviation Administration money – largely cover the first phase. That part of the project, which would focus on expanding ILM’s terminal gates, would cost around $44 million, according to Whitney Prease, ILM facility manager.
“Nothing is set in stone, nothing is finalized, at the state level or with the FAA,” Wisley said. “But we’re happy with what we’re seeing. This money would definitely get the planning stage started.”
A smaller shortfall, but questions remain
The question remains: how will ILM raise the $44 million for phase two? Building decks for rental cars and long-term parking, as well as making other expansions, remain important for the airport, and many options are being considered, Wisley said.
“We have considered bonding with the county, since they own the land, and they have a stronger rating than us, so it would be more advantageous,” Wisley said. “We could also bond on our own. We have options, we’ll consider them all, we’re very methodical about the process.”
Taxpayer money could very well become necessary to fully bring ILM’s facilities up to the level that modern travelers expect, however. Wisley said she hopes people understand the upgrades as an investment in the continued growth of southeastern North Carolina.
“We see a lot of business travelers, and they have certain expectations about what kind of facilities an airport has. So, if we had to do a county bond, people should understand, we’ll be using it responsibly. We have a $1.6 billion impact on the region. We want to continue to do that. We’re not going to be building the Taj Mahal, but we do want to build a facility that looks ahead to 10 or 15 years of growth in the region.”
Raleigh is likely to have approved a state budget by next week, when the New Hanover County Airport Authority has their next scheduled meeting on Wednesday, June 7.