John Hall’s passion lies in the airport

County Councilman John Hall at the Salisbury Regional Airport (Todd Dudek Photo).

John Hall, his wife, Carolyn, and their business, Hall’s Tidewater Travel, have been fixtures for decades in the Salisbury community.

While always a civic leader, Hall stayed on the fringe of politics, leaving the elective limelight to his spouse, who was the sitting City Council President when she ran for mayor in 1998.

When Bob Caldwell died 10 months into his County Council term in 2011, Hall was appointed to represent District 4. He was elected to a four-year term in 2014 and recently said he would not be running for re-election.

The Halls live on venerable Forest Drive in the Pinehurst neighborhood of Salisbury. His County Council district encompasses the majority of the city’s neighborhoods, where many of the community’s civic and business leaders reside.

Hall serves as a member of the Wicomico County Civic Center Commission, Friends of Wicomico County, Wicomico County Recreation and Parks Commission, Tri-County Council, Camden Neighborhood Association, and Salisbury Rotary Club.

His first community-service love is is seat as Chairman of the Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport Commission.

Regarded as an independent voice on the council — people have sometimes labeled him a maverick — Hall made headlines this summer when he took his council colleagues to task over their handling of the budget.

Q. Your area of expertise is the airport. There’s lots going on there and I think you’re behind a lot of it, so tell me what’s going on.

A. The airport, well that’s my passion. The airport was started in 1940 by the Navy. They put in $1.5 million and it was finished in 1943.

The Navy took control of it used it to store planes here until 1945, and they turned it over to the city.

They had a big celebration when that happened  — all the stores closed in Salisbury. The whole city turned out for the celebration of the opening of the airport.

It’s expanded — it has a $50 million (annual) economic impact now. Piedmont has over 300 employees out there, so there are 300-plus total employees. Piedmont — or at American Airlines’ — impact is pretty close to $30 million.

Isn’t that amazing? I think it’s fabulous.

And the fact that they’re based here is tremendous because it raises the level of the income of Wicomico County — the mechanics and many others they have out there have pretty high-paying jobs.

Q. What would our community be like if Richard Henson hadn’t moved Allegheny Airlines here?

A. Our community catered to him and influenced him to come here. He was going to go to Hagerstown and have his airline there.

We’re so grateful that he came here because it has made a dramatic economic impact on our community with legacies that he’s left.

Q. Because of the money he made and donated, directly and through the Henson Foundation, his name is on practically every community or college building.

A. Yeah, it’s a great thing.

Q. I always thought he came here because he liked us — he used to say that — but basically it was because Hagerstown wouldn’t build him the airport he wanted — but that Wicomico would?

A. That’s correct. Now that brings us to the challenges that we have now with the airport. Since we’ve changed governments, and now we’re now we’re the executive form of government, the airport was run by a commission that didn’t have a lot of power to make the airport grow.

The last building was built in 1990 and that was the terminal, so and the infrastructure has not been kept up.

So now we’re way behind.

That’s where my passion lies: in bringing it up to where it should be.

It is the second-largest airport in Maryland and we are not taking full advantage of it. Hopefully, by the time I’m done, we will.

Q. Piedmont President & CEO Lyle Hogg addressed son business leaders recently. While he didn’t really criticize the county, he did strongly advocate the extension of the runway. A. n additional 600 feet is needed to accommodate regional jets. Where does that stand?

A. American or Piedmont’s interpretation is we need 600 feet. Yes, it’s a measly 600 feet. Well, 600 feet at $1 million every hundred feet is $6 million.

We are going to extend the runway. The (Federal Aviation Administration) is determining whether we need to go 600 (feet) or 60 feet, so we’re waiting for the FAA to come back. In the meantime we haven’t stopped moving forward. We’re still in the design stage and we’re still doing the leg work that has to be done.

Q. There’s environmental study remaining, right?

A. Right, that’s being done now. The process, according to the FAA, is going to take three years from when we started, which was about six months ago.

Lyle (Hogg) wanted the runway done in two years; the FAA says no — we can’t do it in 2 1/2 years. We (the county) said, well let’s go ahead and expedite it.

But Lyle also talked about the two other factors that were concerns to him: One with fire safety, and of course, as you know, we just just finished a Fire Services Agreement (with the city), which is still being discussed.

We have decided that for the airport, we’re going to do contract (fire protection) service until we can figure out what needs to be done as far as having a fire station at the airport.

County Councilman John Hall: “For sure, it’s been a great ride. I really have enjoyed it.”

Q. Right now Piedmont is taking care of firefighting staffing themselves, but under the new lease the county is going to be responsible.

A. That’s correct. They’ve decided it takes away from their manpower doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

We are going to staff it and will. We hope that that will eliminate one of the problems that we have.

Q. So would you like to see volunteers out there?

A. Frankly, we have to have a dedicated force out there and they must be on premises, so it’s a little difficult with volunteers to make sure that they’re there and that you can count on them to be there.

At the same time, we’re going to have to add, say, three-paid people out there, whenever Piedmont is taking off and landing. The must be there so, it must be paid (personnel) now.

The other concern is the (city) water getting to the airport. We just found out that the state has given us a very favorable loan that will cover three-quarters of the cost that running water from Wor-Wic (down Walston Switch Road).

And, again, we’d like to see these things happen tomorrow, but they take a long time.

Everything’s three years, three years, three years.

Q. What the County Executive did with the stadium — when the state forgot to put money in the budget for the stadium improvements — was go ahead and pay with the idea that the state would come through. Can you do that with the airport?

A. You can.

Q. And the FAA would pay you back later?

A. Yes, that’s what we’re going to have to do. The FA. A.  said they will pay us $6 million, but not until the end of the project, within just three years.

In the meantime, we have to have the project built right, so we’ll have to forward fund it now.

Q. I’m told you’re behind the newest hire at the airport Dawn Veatch, who is the most impressive person I’ve met in the last year.

A. Wow! What a treasure we have!

Q. Where did you find her?

A. We actually had we had an airline pilots meeting at the airport and she represented the airline pilots in Washington, D.C., and decided to come down and visit.

She was impressed, and we we were impressed. We said “let’s go ahead and see if we can work out some type of arrangement” and she said, “well I like what I’m doing.”

In the meantime, she moved to Cambridge and was commuting to Washington. She saw that Salisbury is much better. She could see the opportunity that she has to create something that will be a legacy.

She certainly has worked toward that goal and it’s fabulous working with her.

Q. She seems to have her hands in all things already.

A. Her attention to minutiae is amazing. She cares about everything; it’s a big, big deal. We’ve had a lot of “let’s fix this” and she’s going in and doing a lot. What a thrill it is to sit down listen to her.

Q. I just hope the community can keep up with her.

A. The challenges are money — us having the money to do what her vision is. So far, we’ve done pretty well

Q. She organized that “Wings & Wheels” event on short notice this spring. Was it a success?

A. They got it together pretty fast and it was a big success. We had over 2,000 people, so we’re planning doing that again next year. We anticipate in the neighborhood of 15,000 people will attend next year. It will be big, big.

Q. What is the airport’s future?

A. Our airport needs money, that’s what it amounts to, which is something you hear throughout the county.

We have to repair the infrastructure and it’s going to take a lot of money to do that.

Is it worthwhile? Yes, because the people who can come in and bring businesses here — first of all, they want to fly, they don’t want to drive in. If they can’t fly in, it’s a strike against us.

But when they get here, they want to look at something that’s impressive. Right now we’re not that impressive, but we will be by the time we’re done — so I feel good about that.

Q. Your career was in the travel-booking business, so you know what people want in terms of travel. How lucky are we all here that we can get to an airport in four minutes and go anywhere in the world?

A. We are very fortunate. It’s interesting that 45 years ago, our travel agency began working with Dick Henson when he had A. llegheny A. irlines, and at one time our agency took care of 60 percent of all of the passengers who flew off the Eastern Shore. That’s how big we were.

The years before I retired, I had three very prominent ladies come into my office who wanted to go to Hawaii. They had never been off the Eastern Shore and they were only in the mid- to late ’70s.

I got so tickled that I said, “Well, I’ll drive you over to Baltimore to get the flight” because they couldn’t fly there on USAir. So I’m startled at the number of people who have not been off the Shore.

Q. You made some news during the during the budget process here recently you rankled some of your colleagues. Do you want to talk about that”

A. Well, not really, but we can. (Laughs.)

Q. Do you want to tell us what happened?

A. Yes, but why don’t you describe what happened instead.

John and Carolyn Hall attend an awards event held last year at Wor-Wic Community College. 

Q. Well, basically, the council agreed to cut taxes and agreed to some budget cuts, and the executive didn’t exactly support their work or the way that they did it. And then you came out and kind of blasted the whole process and took you colleagues to task..

A. Yes. I was uncomfortable with the process as we were going on and I had started stating how uncomfortable I was while we were going through the budget process, but I didn’t get any traction.

I missed the missed the meeting when the budget was passed because of a health reason.

Q. You missed the one vote that was held in the middle of the overall process.

A. That’s right, and then when I came back. My problem with it was that — my big, big problem with it — is that we gave a 1 percent tax cut, and a 1 percent tax cut amounts to $10 per $100,000. So if you have a $250,000 house, you save $25, but it cost the county $600,000 (in revenue).

Q. One of my readers wrote in and said, “Yes, that’s great news — I can now super-size my fries.”

A. (Laughs.) Yes, and the county loses $600,000.

We could have used that money for improving our infrastructure. It was just that it’s just premature (to cut taxes now). We had eight bad years with the economy. We’re starting to catch up now — we haven’t caught up yet — one or two more years and we’ll be there, and then it might be reasonable. But we can never recover that 1 percent that we gave back. Never — it’s gone forever and with it in every year from now on we’ve lost $600,000.

Q. Watching you on the council, I can’t tell when things make you angry. You have a very level tone about everything. Do you get fired up?

A. I think when I wave my hands and fingers it shows what I’m really passionate about. (Laughs.) Usually when I have something to say, I’m pretty passionate about what I’m saying.

Most of the time, however, I do agree with the direction that the council is going.

There are just some times that I don’t see the vision that we need to have. There are items that we are ignoring.

You know, as I told the council, we have no goal-setting (exercises). You know we need goals — we need to have vision for the future.

With such a wonderful community — we have so many assets, so many people that have so many good attributes — that we could be using them and we haven’t done that.

Q. The City Council, even when they didn’t get along, would have a goal-setting sessions.

A. That’s correct. We had a goal-setting (discussion) — I drove it and I was the only one that suggested goals, so that didn’t go very far.

Q. What’s this tension between the County Executive and the council? What does it come from? Is it just the branches of government — and therefore a normal thing — or is it a personality thing?

 A. I think it started out being a normal thing and then it’s gotten into personalities — and it’s very difficult to get back to where it should be.

There are very strong personalities on both sides. The willingness to compromise is not there, which is very sad.

Sometimes I see where there’s a willingness to compromise, but when we get together and we start trying to compromise, the wall goes up — then the discussions are over.

Q. I remember when Bob Culver was on the council he would take issue with the then-executive, Rick Pollitt, for not paying attention to the council’s wishes. Now the roles are reversed.

A. (Laughs.) Well, he voted “no” more than anybody I know on the council — he and one of the other council people — but, yeah, the roles are reversed.

There’s no question about it: He’s very, very strong and has very definite ideas on what needs to be done. In a a lot of cases, I agree with him, but I don’t always like the way he’s done it. There could be better ways to do some things.

Q. After you gave that speech to the council about your concerns with the way the budget was handled, someone called me and said: “You know Bob Culver wrote that for him, right?”

A. (Laughs.) I know better than that. No — no, he didn’t didn’t even know (the speech) was coming. It startled him as much as it startled my fellow council team.

Q. I think Bob wanted to give you a medal when it was over.

A. (Laughs.) Yeah, I think he did.

Q. Your institutional memory might be the deepest on the County Council.

A. That’s interesting because when we’re discussing an item, and we end and the discussion is over, the Council President (John Cannon) will go like this (Hall leans his head forward and looks out the side of his eye) and stare down the table.

The have called me “The Sage” — and that’s exactly my role. When I’m gone from the council, the historical knowledge pretty much is gone for the community.

We’ve always been involved in the community. We know what’s going on; we care about what’s going on in the community. So we’ve always taken a role and we’ve always participated in some way or another.

We’ve been involvedin civic projects for our entire stay here — we are almost natives … .

Q. Well, almost natives — you have only been here, what, 50 years? At 50 years, you’re almost there.

A. We’ve been here a little longer than that. And I’ve chaired most of the major projects in the community or been involved in them. For sure, it’s been a great ride. I really have enjoyed it.

Q. Your wife, Carolyn Hall, was president of the City Council and ran for mayor 1998. She was the first woman to ever run for mayor in Salisbury, but she lost against the other first woman to run.

A. Carolyn is and was a tremendous asset to the community.

Q. Who inspires who in your relationship?

 A. We talk about politics, that’s for sure, and we talk about the direction that we should go in.

My character is a little bit stronger than hers — she’s nicer, she’s much nicer, She’s much more diplomatic, there’s no question about it.

When we talk about things we often have a different perspective — we have the same view, but just a different way to get there.

And hers is usually right

Q. You have said you won’t run for re-election.

A. I’m trying to find someone in my district who is much younger than I am to represent our district, and it’s been a challenge.

It’s a good district, a very strong district. It’s very cohesive. I have talked to a few people who were interested. It’s a little premature for them to come out, I think. But there’ll be somebody out of my district and it could be some of the people that had considered running against me, which would not be a bad thing.

Q. You’ve been pretty forthright about some health problems. Do you want to talk about that?

A. Sure. I have cancer. We found out about it a little over a year ago and started in June (2016) with chemotherapy and radiation.

We stopped in November, and we thought that it had worked and that my cancer was gone.

Then we did a follow up and we found out that it had come back — and had come back with a vengeance.

Now I’m on immunotherapy, which is a trial, and it’s a very aggressive trial. It’s proven (to work) in different types of cancer, but not in the lung cancer. We had some good news (recently) that my (lung) tumor has shrunk slightly, and and we have verified it.

It certainly is an asset that we have our hospital (Peninsula Regional Medical Center) and our (Henson) cancer center. The immunotherapy that I’m on is one of the best that I could do.

My energy level is good — it was not six months ago, but now it’s back. I’m good for about 12 or 14 hours a day, but not 18 hours a day, like what I was.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. You mean, what’s my legacy going to be?

Well you know it’s always been that I’m Carolyn Hall’s husband. (Laughs.) I don’t have any problem with that.

I am not doing this for a legacy for myself, I never have been. I have always felt that community’s much more important then I am.

If I can serve the community and leave the community in a better light, then I had a wonderful experience.

I would just like my children or my grandchildren or anyone in the community to have the kind of experience I’ve had in living here.

If I could just leave it it a little better then it was, I’ll be satisfied.

 

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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