After more than a decade of hearings, revised proposals and an estimated $12 million in studies, the City Council and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), in separate meetings less than 12 hours apart, approved a memorandum of understanding that could lead to a longer runway at T.F. Green.
The deal is not yet set in stone, as it is also subject to the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which could come in the next two weeks.
But, the tone at the specially scheduled meeting in Council Chambers at City Hall on Wednesday evening was optimistic and harmonious – almost surreal given a history of argumentative and sometimes unruly sessions over airport projects. Council members, RIAC, constituents and business owners alike applauded the unanimous vote.
Nearly 250 people joined to witness the outcome and were anxious to see the results of the efforts of the airport litigation subcommittee, which consisted of three members of the council. Planning director William DePasquale and John Harrington, counsel to the council, served as non-voting members.
Just moments after the council vote, RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon said in a brief interview, “This was a tough decision for the City Council but it’s the absolute right decision. It’s been years in the making and there has been uncertainty for a decade and a half. It’s key for the development of the airport. We need this infrastructure to allow us to be successful.”
Scott Duhamel of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council agreed. In an interview at the meeting, he said during the last two years, 40 to 50 percent of their nearly 10,000 statewide members are unemployed. He thinks airport expansion will fix the economic issues in the state.
“We see the big picture in Rhode Island and it will create jobs for our members if everything goes as it should,” Duhamel said. “There are real construction jobs here.”
Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager of Laborers Local 271, thanked the subcommittee and the council for their hard work on the matter. He spoke again Thursday at the RIAC board meeting, thanking them not once but three times to the board’s amusement.
“This will truly put the state back on a path to recovery. You can really feel the optimism in the air and this is a huge piece to that puzzle,” he told the board.
Joseph Walsh of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers told the council the airport is a “great, untapped resource in Rhode Island.”
“In my opinion, airport expansion will bring work [to the state] for generations,” he said.
Carlo Pisaturo, a former City Council president, agreed. He views it as an “economic engine” for the state and the city of Warwick.
“There are a number of people that are employed by the airport, as well as the surrounding businesses,” he said.
John Kokot, general manager of the Crowne Plaza, believes a longer runway will be good for economic development. He described it as an “innovative and welcoming” step toward making Warwick a “desirable destination.”
“This is not only an opportunity to benefit hotels, but the city of Warwick, as well,” he said.
In a change of tone from their customary questioning of airport growth, Richard Langseth, executive director of the Greenwich Bay Watershed Group, and resident Michael Zarum urged the council to move forward.
“I support the spirit of what’s going on here,” said Zarum.
Moreover, Lauren Slocum, president of the Central RI Chamber of Commerce, and Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, expressed thanks to the mayor, City Council and RIAC for moving forward on the agreement, as did Pegee Malcolm of the Historic Cemeteries Commission.
“One of the things we were very, very afraid of was that people were going to come in and plow through the cemeteries,” Malcom said. “That did not happen thanks to you. I appreciate the fact that they have opened the dialogue to reach an agreement.”
In an interview, Doyle Byrd, president of Warwick Firefighters Soccer Club, said he and the 1,000-plus children who play soccer at Winslow Park are grateful for the conclusion.
“We want to thank the City Council for what they are doing,” said Byrd. “We are more than happy to move to CCRI.”
But, a few people weren’t pleased. Resident Don Fife spoke against expansion. He said he doesn’t feel that Rhode Island is business friendly and needs to focus on lowering high taxes, as opposed to potentially creating new ones.
“I’d rather see these problems resolved before we have expansion,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Another resident, Janice Pangman, expressed her concerns about air quality and pollutants that planes emit.
“This is not about the extension,” she said. “It’s about safety.”
Citizens Michelle Komar and Philip D’Ercole were also apprehensive about the agreement. While D’Ercole said he’s in favor of anything that aims to improve the economy, he is worried about environmental issues, as glycol, a de-icing fluid, is disposed in bodies of water in Warwick.
“Do it the right way and within the law,” said D’Ercole.
After the meeting, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla, who served on the subcommittee with Council President Bruce Place, said they are gratified with the results.
When they entered into negotiations with RIAC, said Vella-Wilkinson, one of the most difficult things they had to do was prioritize the problems expansion posed, such as air and water quality issues, moving Winslow Park, as well as the impact it would have on historical cemeteries.
“When we framed the issues that were a controversy, we did so with very open palms and saying to them, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve for the city and for the constituents,’” said Vella-Wilkinson. “I realized that the choice became, ‘Do we go for broke by saying no to the expansion or do we say if we can’t get them to agree to the 8,300 feet, what can we do to get people out of harm’s way and mitigate the impact on our city?’ That was the path we had taken. I really do believe there was nothing left on the table despite some of the concerns we heard [last week].”
Merolla, who has been on the council for 14 years, agrees. He said he feels they negotiated the hardest on any issue he’s seen since being elected.
“It was the best possible deal we could get without gambling on a result that, in my opinion, would have been a worse outcome for the public,” he said. “We were able to get $3.5 [million] to $5 million for the construction of the ball fields at the Community College of Rhode Island, which is not only significant for the health and safety of the children, as the fields will no longer be located next to the short runway, but it’s also significant to the organizations because they don’t have to again worry about investing in a property that may be moved.”
Vella-Wilkinson said she is also excited about the economic development portion of the agreement. In the future, T.F. Green will be endorsed as a Warwick destination, as opposed to a Providence destination, and signage will be erected in the terminal, as well as the garage.
“With RIAC promoting the city of Warwick, we should see a return with regards to hotel reservations,” she said. “Restaurants and businesses will feed on that, too. That’s huge and it means more jobs in every aspect and every level, not just in the hospitality, tourism and construction trades because when you make the city flourish, companies are more interested in coming here and that means additional jobs in other industries. It’s going to be wonderful.”
For Merolla, he’s worried that RIAC is “biting off more than they can chew.” The project will force them to take on a $100 million debt, said Merolla.
“They have to finance the debt through higher parking fees and higher ticket fees,” he said. “If the fees get too high, it discourages airlines from coming to the airport and you have the exact opposite effect of your intent, which is to have more passenger traffic.”
According to Merolla, passenger traffic is down 32 percent from 2008 at T.F. Green. In his opinion, there aren’t going to be West Coast flights.
“There isn’t the demand for it,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense to put larger planes that could fly to the West Coast in an airport when you can’t fill them.”
However, Governor Lincoln Chafee is more optimistic. At last week’s meeting at the airport, he said it would promote economic growth.
“We can build on this aspect,” he said. “The taxpayers have made an investment and we are going to see economic activity.”