No need to rush

Published 9:37 am Saturday, January 8, 2011

When the Navy and City of Franklin last spring first expressed mutual interest in the use of Franklin Municipal Airport for pilot training, our newspaper opined that it sounded like a win-win situation.

It might yet prove to be.

Enough doubt has crept in and enough legitimate questions raised, though, that elected officials and citizens should take a step back and weigh very carefully the implications of the Navy’s presence in a community that stands at a critical crossroads.

This is not the juncture in Franklin’s proud history for quick, emotional decisions.

Ours is a patriotic community. Our impulse is to do our part — even sacrifice if necessary — to support the men and women who defend our country.

Though the Navy has the apparent legal right to use the airport with or without the city’s blessing, Adm. J.C. Harvey and his leadership team, to their credit, have made no such threat. Instead, they have worked hard to build public support — or at least acceptance — of the plan to use the airport for training of turboprop pilots on touch-and-go landings.

That has included, to date, two demonstrations of what the training will look and sound like, candid media interviews, and appearances at any community meeting to which they have been invited. It’s hard to find fault with the way the Navy has handled the matter.

While more demonstrations and question-and-answer sessions have been offered by the Navy, the bigger need now is for a community conversation about what this means for Franklin and southern Isle of Wight County, the quality of life for their citizens, and their shared economic future.

The Franklin City Council, as the ultimate decision-maker on a prospective partnership with the Navy, has an obligation to facilitate the conversation. Citizens, certainly, should have the opportunity to interact with council members at one or more public forums.

The proposed “memorandum of understanding” that would preclude a formal partnership between the city and Navy should be made public at least two weeks before council members vote on it.

The council should also organize a panel discussion with representatives of organizations that need to weigh in publicly on what impact, if any, the Navy training would have on the community and its economy. Franklin-Southampton Economic Development, the Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Franklin Association and area

Realtors are a few that come to mind.

If they haven’t already, city officials need to check in with International Paper Co. to ensure that the Navy training — and the airport’s reduced operating hours for commercial aviation that would result — won’t spook the company or companies looking to repurpose the Franklin paper mill site.

On its own most optimistic timetable, the Navy wouldn’t begin using the airport until next January. That’s plenty of time for a careful analysis of the partnership and its implications.

Even if the outcome is inevitable, citizens should be fully informed of what awaits if the Navy comes to Franklin.