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The Dive: ILM's soaring, revenge travel, and Wilmington's PPD purchase perk

WHQR recently launched a joint newsletter with The Assembly. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman sat down with Assembly editor Johanna Still to talk about the latest episode, looking at ILM’s recent growth and an obscure legal perk the city gets with its recent purchase of the ThermoFisher building.

You can find this week's edition of The Dive from WHQR and The Assembly here.

BS: Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you, Ben.

BS: Okay, so this week on The Dive, you took a look at the Wilmington International Airport, affectionately known by some as ILM. And you spoke to airport director Jeff Bourk about what's going on there. Obviously, there's been a lot of uncertainty in the world, which impacts air travel. So give us the highlights, what's going on at ILM right now.

JS: So ILM, according to a study by their consultant, is the third fastest growing airport in the entire country for airports their size – so the big airports, basically. And that seemed shocking to me. And they're also the fastest growing in North Carolina. And you know, this data, it gets super in the weeds, but it's based on seat capacity. So what it basically translates to is, these big major airline carriers are betting that people are going to be buying the seats, they're gonna be buying tickets to fill the seats.

BS: So one of the questions you asked, and I was curious about this is, obviously air travel was heavily restricted in the early days of the pandemic. And then it became for some people a hassle for some people, it was people are less inspired to travel for fun, people still travel for business. Did you get a sense of you know, how air travel, and specifically ILM, is doing now?

JS: You what's fascinating is, you would perhaps think there might be a cooling off, but at least as far as last month, they're still posting record numbers. The pandemic had a major impact to airports and carriers across the nation. Well, post-pandemic, there was this trend of ‘revenge travel,’ which is where people just kind of got their little travel out, they had a lot of pent-up anxiety wanting to get out of the house. And so they booked a bunch of trips and you know, spent all their excess savings in cash. Now, a lot of that cash has evaporated. And just from on a macro scale, this revenge travel phenomenon, there's questions of whether you know, it's over or if it's going to continue in any way. But what it seems like is, perhaps at least for ILM, maybe this is a new normal.

BS: I like that term revenge travel – like take that 2020.

JS: For this week, you also had a story. I know we've already talked about PPD, but you pulled out a very interesting aspect of it that we haven't really covered — tell us about the architectural covenants that the city now has from PPD?

BS: Sure. So you've got to go back 20 years to when PPD bought a large swath of land on the northern part of Wilmington’s riverfront. When they bought that land, they got what is known as architectural covenants. And that is the right to determine what actually gets built from the very small level, like what kind of trash cans, what kind of siding, what kind of landscaping all the way up to big picture stuff, like what kind of actual businesses go there. And over the years that actually came up in a story where there was a developer who was required to build public bathrooms; we went round around for years trying to figure out why he hadn't done it. Ultimately, I figured out it was because the style of bathroom he wanted to put in just didn't fly with PPD. So flash forward a number of years, the city of Wilmington has now purchased the Thermo Fisher building that used to be the PPD building. And with the purchase of that building, they got the architectural covenants, which means now the city has a say, in everything, again, from the very small to the very large picture, aesthetically, of what goes in that whole region.

JS: Which is really interesting, because the city, you know, of course, already has zoning rights. And so this is above and beyond what they would have already given themselves. And, you know, I don't think this ended up in the piece, but we've had the discussions about this, that the ability to control what's next to you is part of what the county really really wanted to hold on to with Project Grace — control that maybe you wouldn't otherwise have for a large downtown area. And so I guess it remains to be seen what things will look like.

BS: Probably a feature for a future episode of The Dive. But for now, Johanna, thanks for being here.

JS: Thanks, Ben.