City hands municipal airport 7-year reprieve

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 2004

[7/20/04]The Vicksburg Municipal Airport got a new, seven-year lease on life Monday when city officials voted to continue operating and maintaining the U.S. 61 South facility.

The Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to accept a $650,000 state grant for improvements at the airport and to keep it open for seven years as part of the terms of the grant.

City officials also voted to request that the airport be put back on the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems, a necessary step to seek federal funding through the Federal Aviation Administration. Monday’s actions reverse the previous administration’s position.

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“I know it has not been an easy thing for you to do, but I think you made the right decision,” said Donald Cross, president of LeTourneau Inc.

The city applied for the grant on behalf of LeTourneau after officials with the offshore oil rig manufacturing operation just south of the municipal airport threatened to leave Warren County if that airport was closed. Under terms of the grant, LeTourneau executives have pledged to make $1 million in improvements and create an additional 33 jobs at its facility.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, who previously abstained from votes to keep the airport open, said he hasn’t changed his position on local aviation and would like to see a new alternative.

“I’m supporting the will of the community, which spoke up and said they didn’t want to lose LeTourneau,” Leyens said.

LeTourneau and its parent company, Houston-based Rowan, was one of 16 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city filed after a previous city administration voted 2-1 in 1998 to close the municipal airport in favor of the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound. Plans at the time were to convert the land on U.S. 61 South to industrial sites, some with river access.

The case went before the Mississippi Supreme Court and ended two years ago when justices ruled that the city could close the municipal airport.

Since last summer, the airport, officially designated VKS, has been under city control and operated on a month-to-month basis under contract with the manager who ran it during the court proceedings.

The state grant will pay for the first phase of a $3.3 million improvement plan at VKS. Those improvements include rehabilitating the runway pavement, applying sealcoat over the taxiway pavement, improving approach slopes and improving the north runway safety area.

How the planed improvements and extended life for VKS will affect the airport in Mound remains to be seen, but Leyens said he doesn’t expect any changes there. VTR is owned by Vicksburg, Tallulah, Madison Parish and Warren County, which pay monthly supplements to its operations.

Proponents of VTR say the 10-year-old airport is superior to the 60-year-old municipal airport, but some local business owners say VTR does not meet their needs and is too far away.