Wright Brothers’ Centennial Celebration is Struggling

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Celebration Activities

The Wright Brothers’ centennial celebration at Kitty Hawk is struggling to overcome a late start in planning and a shortage of funds. The North Carolina First Flight Centennial Commission (FFCC), the state agency overseeing North Carolina’s celebration of the first flight at Kitty Hawk, has contributed to the problem.

The FFCC has been slow in developing detailed, comprehensive planning and has been reluctant to delegate responsibility, authority and provide funding for planning and execution of the event of the century. The event will take place in Dare County, North Carolina at the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial.

Dare County Ill Prepared

The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission located in Washington, D.C. has announced a yearlong celebration extending overseas and culminating in Dare County, the location of the first flight on December 17, 2003. Unfortunately, Dare County is ill prepared and under funded for the event with only one year remaining before the yearlong celebration begins.

Dare County finds themselves in this crisis situation through no fault of their own. Until just recently, they have been constrained by the FFCC in performing the required necessary planning. At a rancorous meeting of the FFCC on December 17, 2001, Sherry Rollason, Mayor of the town of Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Memorial is located, characterized the issue by proclaiming that the FFCC hasn’t made any progress since 1994. “We need help.”

Some help did come after tense debate at the meeting in the form of a resolution that gives Dare County an endorsement of a calendar of events developed and endorsed by the interconnected towns of Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Manteo and Southern Shores.

The vote of the commission members was ten in favor and three against the motion, with some ten members abstaining. The lukewarm result, while approving the resolution, lacked the unanimous support that it should have had to give Dare County the positive support they need to overcome the challenge ahead of them.

It is particularly disappointing that one of those who voted against the motion is the state director of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, who has overall responsibility for the state’s centennial celebration. The FFCC reports to this department.

Insufficient Funds

The approved resolution did not come with any funds or even a proposed budget for Dare County to work with. This leaves Dare County at a severe handicap in developing their detailed implementation plans.

The money problem will not be easily solved. The State of NC has an overall budget deficit which leaves unsettled how many dollars will be allocated to the FFCC to support celebration activities. Further compounding the problem is the manner in which the commission plans to allocate the limited amount of money that they do have.

The commission views their task as one of supporting celebration activities around the whole state. FFCC Co-Chairman, Tom Lambeth, explained at the meeting that 99% of the board’s funding and the population it serves are from outside Dare County.

It is noted here that all of the Wright Brothers’ activities in North Carolina were confined to Dare County. One could argue, that if there is limited funding, the focus of funding should be where the activities of the Wrights actually occurred.

Geneva Perry, granddaughter of Elijah Baum who welcomed Wilbur when he first arrived at Kitty Hawk, did open the issue. She retorted that we don’t expect all the efforts of the commission to be here but we need to equally share in the resources. The main event is going to be here and if it is not what it could and should be visitors are going to go away thinking negatively about our area. “We will bear the brunt of it.”

In an attempt to calm the expected rising storm of criticism, prior to the meeting, Governor Mike Easley appointed Ken Mann of the First Flight Society as co-chairman of the FFCC. The First Flight Society, a private organization, has traditionally sponsored the annual first flight celebration at the Wright Memorial.

Whatever good feeling was created by the appointment didn’t last long. During a discussion of the relevance of some of the past expenditures of the FFCC, Mann’s critical comments so unsettled co-chair Lambeth that he threw his pen on the conference table in frustration.

Preliminary Plans

The preliminary plans for the the week of December 13-16, 2003 at the Wright Memorial are to hold a variety of air shows, static ground displays, and educational programs, as well as a host of exhibits. A 20,000 square foot pavilion on parkland to house the displays and exhibits is on the drawing board to be available by April 2003.

Another group associated with the FFCC known as the First Flight Foundation has been charged with obtaining the funding for the pavilion and other site improvements. They have yet to neither raise the funds nor do they have engineering plans and cost estimates completed for the pavilion. They claim to have some interested sponsors.

Time is drawing short for raising significant funds. They have missed the 2002 budget cycle for charitable contributions for most big companies. Many of the target companies may have already committed their funds to other locations such as the Wright celebration in Dayton. And, it is not a good time to be soliciting for funds, as the aerospace industry and airlines are in a recession.

Fortunately, one big event planned for the celebration at the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial park is funded and on schedule. That is the re-enactment of the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at 10:35 a.m. on December 17th, the time of the first flight.

Dare County is planning a yearlong series of events beginning with torch lighting and  countdown clock beginning January 2002. There is also the possibility of the creation of a centennial park off the site of the Wright Memorial to handle overflow by providing entertainment, additional exhibits and county exposition.

National Park Service

The Park Service handed out a proposed schedule of events at the FFCC meeting, but it contained little detail. The park ranger who had been temporarily detailed from another park site to develop the plan has left because the funding ran out. The job has been given to an existing staff member, but the symbolism of this episode

demonstrates a lack of urgency on the part of the National Park Service at a time where there is a once in a life time opportunity to produce a world-class celebration.

The roof of the Wright memorial exhibition building leaks and must be replaced. The job is behind schedule and had not begun as of December 2001. The repairs will necessitate the closing of the building during most of 2002 and may even stretch into 2003.

This fiasco began a number of years ago when the park service spent near $200,000 on architectural designs for a much needed new center, then let them drop because the current obsolete building was considered a historic building worth preserving.

The window of opportunity is rapidly closing for promoting the celebration to national convention and tour groups. They need to know about times, places and prices.

Other Celebrations

Other major celebrations in North Carolina are planned for Lumberton and Fayetteville in May 2003 Nationally, an Aviation World’s Fair 2003 is planned at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport. The Society of Experimental Test Pilots is planning an event for Los Angeles in September 2003.

It now appears that the premier celebration will be in Dayton in July. Dayton’s groups have worked on their plans since 1989. They have raised over half of the $40 million they set as a goal. Madeline Iseli, executive director for the Inventing Flight says the Dayton is clearly the forerunner in terms of preparedness for the centennial.

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