High-flying hopes … in ’55

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 7, 2013

The year 1955 was a simpler time in Salisbury and Rowan County. Civic leaders were only months removed from the successful, yearlong celebration of the 200th anniversary of Rowan’s founding.
The bicentennial observance had included parades, novelty “old-timey” contests, and re-enactments of historical events. The collaborative planning among municipalities, county government, residents, historians and civic boosters culminated with an extraordinary display of reflection and optimism including a massive pageant at Catawba College’s football stadium. There was a sense of community pride and cohesion as leaders explored mutually beneficial opportunities to propel Salisbury and Rowan County into its third century. We were together as a county.
Given the advancements in aviation as a more approachable form of personal transportation and more common in the delivery of goods and services, city and county leaders took stock of the situation. Everyone agreed that a new airport might be an opportunity to pursue emerging strategies in economic development. The provision of a modern landing strip with sufficient hangar space would attract both corporate and recreational pilots, the kind of people who recognized the value of efficiencies and access to markets – innovative people who would invest in our community and create jobs. It was a very straightforward idea.
The old municipal airfield with its grass runway, just off U.S. Highway 29 south of Salisbury, no longer fit the bill. County leaders proposed a search for a new airport location. City leaders sought an opportunity to collaborate.
A meeting of the minds occurred. Salisbury would sell the old landing field to Rowan County for $1 and agreed to help garner community support for a bond referendum to improve the facility. The subsequent passage of the referendum generated $200,000 and the Rowan County Airport was born. Community leaders created a successful common vision. For many years, the airport served the community well.

Fast forward to 2013. Nine years after Salisbury annexed the airport and provided needed water and sewer services, purchased a new fire truck specifically designed to fight fires associated with airplane fuel, and provided support for extending the runway to accommodate larger jets, the county now wishes to have the General Assembly de-annex the airport. The 2004 annexation was a legal exercise of municipal power granted to local governments for just such purposes — to have the ability to grow in an orderly way while providing infrastructure and capital to enhance economic development for the entire region.
Annexation has never been a particularly popular government power, but it has existed for sound reasons that have helped this state grow in remarkable and exponential fashion over the past century. The city prevailed in the annexation in 2004 because it followed the rules and operated under the authority allowed by the state.
However, it didn’t use this power for self-serving purposes. Its intent has always been for the greater community good. Were this not so, the city wouldn’t have moved forward as quickly in running water and sewer to the airport and surrounding developments, investing in infrastructure to support the airport, and providing substantial support to encourage redevelopment of surrounding industrial sites and runway expansion. The City of Salisbury has effectively reduced its tax rate for the airport, and imposed upon itself a mandate to invest revenues received back into the airport.

And, remarkably, the City of Salisbury now has publicly proffered to restrict ALL — yes ALL — its tax proceeds from the airport to be used solely for airport development. This is a profound indication that Salisbury wants to help promote the airport’s greatest potential.
It’s no secret that the timing of this de-annexation effort — after Salisbury has invested considerably into the airport’s future — is questionable at best, nefarious at worse. Following immediately on the city’s offer to seek financing to build the central office building that the Rowan-Salisbury School Board has declared necessary for our school system needs, when the county would not, raises the question as to whether this effort is based not in public policy but in personal vendettas.
Regardless, our General Assembly will now have to wrestle with whether to de-annex the airport. Now that the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, the de-annexation decision should be based solely on what is best for Salisbury, Rowan and the region. There are real public safety and economic development issues at play, and real potential consequences if de-annexation occurs. It’s up to state legislators to make informed decisions based on consideration of all of the relevant information, as it always should be in a representational democracy such as ours.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of this latest effort to oppose the city of Salisbury, all of our citizens – county and city – should digest what is going on here. No matter which “side” you are on, doesn’t this seem like a sad chapter in our county’s history? In April of this year, Rowan County will be 260 years old. I wonder if those in leadership in 1955, in an era of celebration, reflection, optimism, collaboration and forward-thinking, a time when were together, could have imagined that Rowan County and the City of Salisbury could be so at odds over what is in the best interest of our citizens on so many issues.
Indeed, 1955 was a much simpler, and yet exponentially more progressive, time.

Joe Morris lives in Salisbury and formerly served as the city’s planning director.