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City votes to back grant for 61 airport

[11/4/03]Vicksburg will continue to support two airports under a 2-0 vote Monday by the city’s aldermen to seek a $650,000 state grant to make improvements to its airfield off U.S. 61 South.

The Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen also voted to amend the agreement with the four government owners of the regional airport in Mound, La., to remove a clause that required closure of VKS, the city-owned airport in Vicksburg, and prevented the city from spending or seeking funds for that facility.

That vote was 3-0, but Mayor Laurence Leyens abstained from the vote to seek the Community Development Block Grant.

“I want to see this airport remain open, but I think it should be in the county’s hands, not the city’s,” Leyens said.

The decision to seek the grant reverses a city decision made five years ago when a previous administration voted 2-1 to close VKS in favor of the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport and to convert the land on U.S. 61 South to industrial sites, some with river access.

The 1998 vote set off a legal battle that ended last year in the Supreme Court when justices ruled that the city could close the municipal airport if that’s what elected officials still wanted to do.

During the summer, however, the CEO of LeTourneau Inc., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over VKS, said VKS was important to its offshore oil rig manufacturing operation just south of the airport, and that jobs could be lost if the city closed the airport.

Officials said it was never made clear to them that LeTourneau made an ultimatum about firing 1,000 people and moving, but that they did not want to take that chance. Last week, about 23 people spoke out about the issue at a public hearing before the city board.

Most of them said they supported keeping VKS open if it meant saving jobs at LeTourneau.

“Although I don’t have any specific information as to why this airport is so important to LeTourneau, I trust you when you say that it is,” Leyens said to LeTourneau president Donald Cross.

LeTourneau CEO Danny McNease said the runway at VTR is not rated for the company’s heavier planes, meaning Jackson was the nearest place the company could land engineers and fly in parts.

Leyens also said that he thought the decision 20 years ago to enter into an agreement with Warren County, Madison Parish and Tallulah to build VTR was probably a “bad decision.”

At the time, the rationale for the multi-owner facility was the availability of federal funds for such projects as opposed to municipal airports. The Federal Aviation Administration paid 90 percent of VTR’s $6 million construction cost, leaving owners responsible for an operating subsidy and shares of matching money for continued improvements.

The state grant for improvements at the municipal airport is being backed by LeTourneau. Company executives have promised $1 million in improvements and the creation of additional jobs.

If the company does not meet those requirements, LeTourneau could be made to pay back the grant. City officials also warned that there is no guarantee that the grant will be awarded.

The funds were offered to the city by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove who is seeking his second term in office during today’s statewide election. His leading opponent, Haley Barbour, is being backed by former Gov. Kirk Fordice who is a major backer of VTR and closing the municipal airport.

“I hope we get the grant, but if we don’t, then we have another question,” Leyens said.

If the city does not get the grant money, it will be up to the board to either put up the $633,000 for work identified in a Neel-Schaffer report completed earlier this year and funded by four of the former plaintiffs or to close the airport. Currently, the airport is operated under a month-to-month agreement with one of the former plaintiffs.

The two airports, about 14 miles apart, compete for local business. Many believe either airport could generate enough income to operate without a subsidy, but if there are two, subsidies will likely continue.

Also, part of the deal has been removing VKS from the FAA’s national airport plan. The sides differ whether that status can be changed so that the 60-year-old airport can again receive federal dollars.

Madison Parish Police Jurors voted last week to amend the VTR agreement and Warren County Supervisors voted Monday to do the same. Vicksburg officials said Monday that the City of Tallulah did not have authority from the State of Louisiana to enter that agreement and could not sue Vicksburg for breach of contract for seeking those funds. Tallulah Councilman Janet Clark said Monday that they are still looking into modifying that agreement. Many LeTourneau employees commute from Louisiana.