Triad's chance is now

The Triad stands on the cusp of a once-in-a-century opportunity, a report written by an expert on airports and economic development says.

Don't blow it, the author told last week's annual meeting of the Piedmont Triad Partnership.

He's John D. Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill and creator of the "aerotropolis" concept. The 2009 opening of the FedEx cargo hub at Piedmont Triad International Airport, combined with the area's transportation network and location on the East Coast, puts the region in a "sweet spot" for economic transformation, Kasarda said. But only if growth is managed properly. "You can't do planning the way you're doing it now," he warned. All Triad jurisdictions have to work together.

Leaders throughout the region better listen. They can expect FedEx to generate thousands of jobs because businesses in the global economy thrive on the rapid movement of materials and finished products. But the danger is settling for too little when the potential is so great. Kasarda defines an aerotropolis as a new urban form extending outward up to 20 miles from an airport, which functions as a logistics hub and commercial center.

It's made to order for an economy where speed and agility count as much as price and quality. Companies succeed by delivering made-to-order products to customers faster than anyone else. Those companies recognize the benefits of working near a FedEx operation in an area that also has a first-rate highway system and rail links.

But it can't happen haphazardly. Planners must make sure development is economically efficient, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sustainable, Kasarda said. Governments need to exert strict control.

"Airport areas are not places for residential development," he said. Nor should space be taken by businesses that don't rely on airport proximity.

Greater investment must be made in roads, rail connections, state-of-the-art telecommunications and education. GTCC's proposal to create an airport-area campus concentrating on aviation skills perfectly fits this vision. Universities and other colleges have important roles to play. Heart of the Triad planning also should be part of this approach. If this is done right, Kasarda said, 100,000 new jobs could appear within a six-mile radius of PTIA in the next 30 years.

"Air logistics represents the Piedmont Triad's best opportunity to create a world-class differentiating competency," Kasarda's report says.

Those are encouraging words for a region that's lost traditional manufacturing jobs, trails the state's larger metro areas in population and economic growth and ranks high in divisions and distrust. But opportunities can be realized only when leaders recognize them, rally public support and commit necessary resources. Once in a century is often enough if the time is now.

* 'Aerotropolis' expert John Kasarda predicts a once-in-a-century opportunity for this region to create a global economy winner around PTIA.

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