Airport question brings more bickering

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 30, 2003

[10/29/03]Most who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday said they are in favor of seeking a grant to benefit the Vicksburg Municipal Airport if it will keep 1,000 jobs in Warren County.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, however, was unable to get a definite statement that LeTourneau and its parent company, Rowan, will shut down its oil rig fabrication facility if the city closes its airport on U.S. 61 South.

“I have not seen a quote attributed to anyone at LeTourneau or Rowan or any written statement that they will close if the airport is closed,” Leyens said.

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Leyens directed his statement as a question to Donald Cross, long-time industrialist and president of LeTourneau here.

Cross said he has not heard Danny McNease, president and CEO of Houston-based Rowan, say that. “I have not, but I do not know what our CEO said in meetings when I was not there,” Cross said.

Leyens has said he will not vote to seek a $650,000 state grant for airport work without a written, long-term commitment from the company whose site is a few miles from the south end of the airport runway.

LeTourneau, among plaintiffs in years-long litigation over a 1998 vote to close the city airport in favor of a new facility across the Mississippi River, has said its planes are too heavy for Vicksburg Tallulah Regional and time is of the essence when engineers and parts are flown in and out of the area.

When asked directly if LeTourneau plans to close if the city board votes to close the airport, McNease had told city officials in previous meetings that jobs at LeTourneau were “on the line” over the issue of the airport and the company may leave Vicksburg if the airport is closed.

The prospect of losing those jobs has convinced some local groups, including the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, Warren County Economic Development Foundation and the Warren County Port Commission, to publicly back seeking the grant money for the city airport.

“Any job in Vicksburg and Warren County is important to us,” said Rusty Hawkins with the EDF. But, “1,100 jobs are very important to our economy.

Chamber president Don Brown said the executive committee voted to support the municipal airport, but that the Chamber board had not taken up the issue and that the members have not been polled. The Chamber was a leading group in the study that resulted in federal grants paying 90 percent of the cost of the regional facility at Mound, La.

Out of the 70 people who attended the hearing, 23 spoke about the proposed application for the grant and the airport. Supporters of the city airport used the risk of a LeTourneau exit as a battle cry for the old airport. Those backing the regional airport Vicksburg jointly owns with Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish said the company should be more forthcoming about its position.

“The representative of LeTourneau wouldn’t even commit to their position,” said Paul Ingram, a backer of the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport. “What is it about an 18-minute drive that breaks a company that takes years to build rigs?” Ingram asked.

Others who spoke in favor of the city airport included two Warren County supervisors, the candidates for Senate District 23 and former plaintiffs who lost, on appeal, their lawsuit to order the city to keep its airport open.

Fred Farrell, one of the former plaintiffs, said the $650,000 grant would pay for improvements at the airport including overlaying the runway, sealing taxiways and approach improvements. He also said that if the airport is put back on the Federal Aviation Administration’s master list of airports, it would be eligible for federal grants that would pay for 90 percent of future improvements.

Leyens said he has spoken with FAA officials and does not believe the airport will ever be put back on that list, the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems.

“I was told you can forget it,” Leyens said.

“Well, we know people more powerful than you, mayor,” Farrell said.

The comment brought laughter from Leyens and others, but in fact, letters have been sent to the FAA from Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson seeking to have VKS placed back on that master list. Musgrove also wrote a letter this spring to the city offering the grant money and offering his support to the airport.

It is not likely that the city board will vote on the grant before next week’s statewide election. Some will be watching the governor’s race and how it may impact the municipal airport. While Musgrove has been supporting the city airport, his opponent, Haley Barbour, is being backed by former Gov. Kirk Fordice, a backer and strong supporter of VTR.

Dan Fordice, a pilot and son of the former governor, said the city should not be intimidated by threats from LeTourneau.

“Good corporate citizens don’t threaten the community they live in. It’s bad manners at the very least,” he said.

City officials did not say when they plan to vote on seeking the grant, but said they are waiting on an amendment to the agreement between the four owners of VTR before moving forward. The amendment will remove the pledge that the city not fund or seek funding for the municipal airport and the city’s promise to close it.

The Madison Parish Police Jury voted Monday to amend that contract and the Warren County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on that amendment next week. That leaves only the City of Tallulah to take action.

City officials said they will take action on the airport before the end of their terms in 2005, but gave very little indication how they planned to vote. North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, the only member of the administration who was on the board in 1998, said they cannot predict what LeTourneau will do, but that they have to do what is best for the community.

“I’m the only one in this room that over the past 10 years has been sued individually (over the airport) and I voted to keep it open,” Young said.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has cleared the way for the administration to close VKS in favor of VTR. Proponents of the new airport say traffic will increase there if the city airport is closed, saving taxpayers money on the operational subsidies the owners pay.

Leyens has said the continuing expense of VKS is not something the city should bear if it’s not needed. After the meeting, Leyens said he expects to anger many voters no matter how he votes on the issue. He added that he believes it will likely be an issue in the next city election, but Carl Haynes, owner of a local radio station, said he feels like he represents the silent majority when he said he is opposed to putting more money into VKS.

“We do not want a $650,000 grant that could go to something else in Vicksburg, and we don’t want to spend $3 million to duplicate something we already have,” Haynes said.

A Neel-Schaffer report completed earlier this year and funded by four of the former plaintiffs showed that $630,000 worth of work is needed at the airport in the next two years and recommended another $3.3 million over the next 10 years. Backers of VKS said the $3.3 million of improvements are not necessary to continue operations of the airport, but could be funded by FAA grants.