When Kevin Dillon came to Rhode Island four and a half years ago, he was a father, but not a grandfather; the city and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) were deadlocked over a runway extension and the Interlink was still on the drawing board.
To a degree, all of those elements played a role in Dillon’s decision to leave his job as president and CEO of RIAC to assume the role of executive director of the newly created Connecticut Airport Authority; overseeing six state airports, including Bradley International outside Hartford. That’s what he says. Others think Dillon might have just had enough of Rhode Island politics but, regardless, Dillon will be in the forefront of building a new authority and a new team.
Even before a scheduled Wednesday announcement that Dillon leaves on July 13, word had leaked out and, in typical Dillon fashion, he wasn’t dodging calls on Tuesday.
“For personal reasons, to be closer to family,” Dillon said when asked why he is taking the job. He would not identify his new employer so that Connecticut could make the announcement yesterday. Two of his three daughters live in Connecticut – Glastonbury and Bridgeport – and he is now the grandfather of four, which is soon to be five. And, as he sees it, being closer to family and continuing to do what he likes “is the best of both worlds.” He take a pay cut of about $28,000 to take the job. The Connecticut authority created by legislators in July 2011, but did not hold its first meeting until October, will pay Dillon $270,000 information officer John Wallace said.
Also, as Dillon puts it, “The pieces of the puzzle are coming together [at Green],” although the work is not completely done.
As he prepares to leave, the city-RIAC relationship has dramatically changed and the way has been cleared for a runway extension and safety areas for the secondary runway. The $267 million Interlink connection to rail service and the nucleus to redevelopment between the airport and Jefferson Boulevard has been completed. Earlier this year, the City Council and RIAC reached a memorandum of agreement that lifts a legal challenge to the runway, which Dillon argued would offer non-stop service to the West Coast and enhanced airline efficiency. Dillon has also been able to lower Green Airport’s cost per enplanement, a measure used by airlines to compare airports, more in line with airports its size. It has made Green more competitive.
There have been disappointments.
“Passenger numbers haven’t rebounded as fast as I would have wished,” he said. One of the “greatest missed opportunities,” he says, was that Green lacked the infrastructure to become the New England home for jetBlue. The airline went to Boston instead.
Green may have lost the chance as the first New England airport to serve the airline, but not necessarily a future with that company. Dillon would not disclose any details, but said, “Very soon you’ll be receiving some exciting news of service development.”
Dr. Kathleen Hittner, chair of the RIAC board, said yesterday she was both surprised and not surprised that Dillon is leaving.
“He is very sought after…a very talented guy,” she said.
With the thought that he might leave someday, Hittner said the board had discussed a succession plan and the first step to mounting a national search will be naming an interim director. That should happen soon, but it was not on the agenda of yesterday’s board meeting and will wait for the next.
Hittner said Dillon educated and built a “very good team,” which she said could capably operate Green and the state’s airports.
“We’re in a good position to address the future,” she said.
She said RIAC is also in a far better position than it was five years ago to attract qualified candidates for the post, now that the issue of a longer runway is resolved and that Dillon has built a strong operational organization.
Turning back the clock more than a decade, Mayor Scott Avedisian points out that RIAC and the city were “diametrically opposed” over the future of the airport. A number of plans to extend the runway had been proposed, including when Dillon arrived on the scene, a 9,350-foot runway that would have had an extension of Route 37 to Warwick Avenue to replace Airport Road.
“There was a lot of tension. Look at where we are. We have accomplished a lot of things,” he said.
When he arrived from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. in February 2008, Dillon quickly scrapped the 9,350-foot plan, replacing it with an extension to the south for a total runway of 8,700 feet. He said he wanted to end the uncertainty many homeowners faced over whether their property would be acquired and when and, in contrast to his predecessors, willingly turned out for neighborhood meetings.
“Right off the bat, he changed he dynamic,” said Avedisian.
There was more to the chemistry.
At about the same time, Hittner was named chair of the RIAC board.
“We had been friends for a long time,” Avedisian said. “We had issues to work through and we talked even when we didn’t want to talk.”
The mayor and Dillon worked through the issues, coming up with a memorandum of agreement that gave RIAC a green light on the extension in exchange for relocating the Winslow Park playing fields, as well as meeting other city demands. That agreement, however, was shot down by the City Council.
Following Federal Aviation Administration approval of the runway extension and safety areas last September, the City Council hired outside counsel and filed for a court review of the FAA record of decision. Dillon was up against another impediment if he hoped to put the projects in line for funding and for construction to start as soon as this year.
The outcome, after some contentious meetings where the business community and unions came together to push for the runway, was another agreement very similar to the one the mayor had reached. While a legal delay to the airport projects seems unlikely, not all of the pieces have fallen into place.
“The request for funding is going to be very important,” says Dillon. On that score, Dillon is hopeful RIAC will have a response to its request for a letter of intent [LOI] by late next month. Without 75 percent funding of the $88 million runway extension, Dillon has questioned whether RIAC can proceed with the project at this time. RIAC is in the process of costing out each of the projects so that work can start as soon as funding is in place. There are other issues to be resolved including the relocation of the playing fields that Dillon would like to have resolved so construction can start early next year.
The Knight Campus of CCRI is named as a possible site for the fields in the agreement; however, questions are being raised whether it is capable of accommodating all the fields. CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said Tuesday no formal talks about the fields have been held since this winter, and that he remains open to exploring options.
Overall, Dillon says, “It’s been a long road.” He feels RIAC’s relationship with the City Council is better and there is a better understanding on both sides of the impact they have on each other.
In an email response to questions, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said, “Kevin attacked his mission of airport expansion with single-minded determination and vigor. He often articulated his own frustration and confusion that our local community did not try to embrace the airport, as other communities did in his past assignments. But the residents' memory of RIAC pre-dated his arrival and all the incremental expansions that impacted the quality of life in Ward 3 and the rest of the city.”
Vella-Wilkinson and Dillon crossed paths on many occasions but probably no more publicly than in 2010 when she was running for the council seat held by Helen Taylor. The council was considering a RIAC rezoning petition of lands it had cleared of homes as the site for a corporate hangar. Vella-Wilkinson sided with abutting residents in opposition to the plan. Yet less than two years later, then as the councilwoman, Vella-Wilkinson and two other council members worked out an agreement with Dillon enabling the runway project to proceed.
“My working relationship went from an extremely rocky, somewhat confrontational start, to building towards productive negotiation to its current state of working together on the relocation of Winslow Fields,” she said.
She added that although not required to do so, Kevin joined the FAA as a party of interest during the City Council challenge of the Record of Decision.
“I believe his legacy is the significant role he played in working with us to achieve an enforceable Community Benefits Agreement. He has made great strides to partner with the City of Warwick in several key areas. I wish him and his family fair winds and following seas,” she said.
Looking forward, Dillon says RIAC has good people and ones capable of running the agency.
“There are a lot of challenges. This is not for someone who wants to be a caretaker,” he said. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “politics make it an interesting environment.”
Ideally, Dillon says, the job in Connecticut would have come up in another couple of years after he had the chance to follow through on many of the plans that are just coming together. He said he started exploring the Connecticut job in February of this year.
Will what Dillon seeks to do for Connecticut end up drawing business away from Rhode Island.
Hittner thinks not. She identified Boston as Green’s competition and the major task of RIAC as building passenger traffic.
He said his future employer has agreed to give him 30 days to return to Green to ensure a smooth transition.
In a statement released by the Connecticut authority, Mary Ellen Jones, chair, said, “We are delighted that Kevin Dillon, with his diverse experience and demonstrated capabilities, will lead the CAA. His focus on operational excellence, route service development, customer satisfaction and community engagement will help us build on the strengths of Bradley International Airport and our five general aviation airports.”
Dillon even received some kudos from one of his strongest critics, albeit offset with an observation about the runway extension.
“I will miss his openness when it came to returning phone calls and listening to my opinions,” said Richard Langseth. “Kevin did an amazing job downscoping RIAC operations as money got tighter and tighter. I can't think of any major capital accomplishments during his four years. He is walking away from the glycol and safety projects just as they need a great deal of attention to gain funding. I am disappointed with that aspect of his tenure here. You can forget about his runway expansion project. That is going down in flames.”