Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2008

City angles for more airport control

The City of Vicksburg is moving to make Vicksburg Municipal Airport a city department, Mayor Laurence Leyens told the airport board at its monthly meeting Thursday.

While the city has always been responsible for final oversight of the airport, officially designating it as the 17th department of the city will relinquish the five-member airport board from handling the day-to-day operations such as paying utility bills and purchasing fuel.

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“The (airport) board was created as an autonomous group to run the airport, in which we would provide them with money to spend,” explained Leyens, acknowledging the city has not provided the board with much money for the few years it has existed. “The (airport) board will still be in place as an advisory board and a conduit between the city and airport customers, but we will be solely responsible for airport operations as well as the capital improvements we are going to make.”

On Wednesday — the start of the new fiscal year — the city set aside about $300,000 in its 2008-09 budget to operate the airport, said Leyens. Previously, the airport board relied on profits made from fuel sales and rent paid by tenants in its communal hangar to keep the lights on and provide fuel to its customers at the facility on U.S. 61 South. As of Sept. 29, the board had a total of $2,957 in its coffers.

“I think it’s better for us,” said airport board secretary Jay Kilroy of the change. “It will allow us to do what we initially set out to do, which was planning, advising and fundraising, and free us from the headache of handling the business operations.”  

Leyens said he is hoping to have the airport operating as a new department of the city within 30 days, and asked to have the issue put on a Board of Mayor and Aldermen agenda for discussion sometime this month — although he said the move does not require board approval.

In the meantime, Leyens said airport board president Kimble Slayton will be the department head. 

Additionally, Leyens outlined an ambitious 12-month plan on Thursday to improve infrastructure and management at the airport. His goals include hiring an independent fixed-base operator to oversee airport operations and acquire Part 139 certification with the Federal Aviation Administration, which would make the airport eligible to accept commercial passenger planes, something it has not done for at least the past 40 of its 58-year history.

“The bottom line is the whole world at this airport is going to change,” Leyens told the board. “We need to put an end to the casual behavior here and work toward establishing a professional aviation atmosphere.”

The developments signal yet another shift in where officials will place their emphasis. In 1983, four local governments — Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish — accepted $6 million in federal funds for a new, expandable airport to be built at Mound, La. When that was done, VTR opened, and Vicksburg Municipal was taken off the FAA’s list of airports eligible for improvements — deeming VTR to be the facility to serve the area.

Work began last week to gut out the airport’s terminal building, which will eventually be completely renovated. Over several years, the issue was batted back and forth in court and elsewhere. Upon taking office, Leyens said the city would support Vicksburg Municipal users, which includes several local industries, but would support VTR, too.

The city received about $1.3 million in federal grant money following Hurricane Katrina to build a new fire station at the airport. The money was a part of the total $5.2 million awarded to Warren County, and city officials decided to use part of the money to raze the existing terminal and build a new one. However, when an estimate from the architect chosen to design the terminal recently came in at nearly three times the amount officials planned to spend, the decision was made to remodel the existing terminal to save money.

“Essentially, the fire station is going to get all the grant money and we’re going to get our terminal remodeled and possibly some T-hangars,” said Slaton. “The cost (to the city) to remodel the terminal is going to be used as part of their required matching funds.”

Leyens said the renovated terminal will be “cutting-edge, luxurious and service-orientated,” and will include such amenities as a restaurant, office space and a pilot’s lounge with leather furnishings and big-screen televisions. He hopes the money made by leasing out the restaurant and office space can cover the terminal’s monthly expenses.

“My goal at the end of one year is to have the airport become self-sustaining economically, so it’s not a burden to the 99 percent of taxpayers in Vicksburg who really have no interest in aviation whatsoever,” said Leyens.

A manufactured building has been moved onto the airport grounds to serve as a temporary terminal space while renovations are being done.

Meanwhile, Vicksburg is in the process of renegotiating its contract with its funding partners for the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound. A 25-year contract inked by Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish in 1983 expires this year. Instead of renewing the contract for another 25 years, the city is looking to reduce its commitment to the airport to about 10 years, said Leyens.

Participation has cost each municipality about $20,000 to $30,000 per year, however, Leyens said he has not been pleased with the results of the partnership. Although VTR’s advisory board meets monthly, the last face-to-face sit down between the four managing entities was in April 2007. At that time, Leyens asked the five-person board to come up with a detailed list of long-term goals to justify the city’s continued involvement.

“My objective is to walk away from VTR and focus on Vicksburg Municipal … unless (VTR) can come up with a comprehensive business plan and show me what kind of economic development benefits we are getting out of the deal,” Leyens said.

Phil Lawson, a tenant of the airport since 1994, applauded Leyen’s plan to bring Vicksburg Municipal up to date. Comparing the city’s airport to the many other small airports around the state and country he regularly flies in and out of, Lawson rated Vicksburg Municipal a “two or three on a scale of 10.”

A timeline

A timeline of events at Vicksburg Municipal Airport and Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound:

• 1948 — Construction begins on Vicksburg Municipal on U.S. 61 South

• 1950 — Vicksburg Municipal opens, providing commercial service by Southern Airways.

• 1983 — Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish agree to pursue $6 million in federal funding for the construction of VTR in Mound.

• 1993 — VTR opens.

• 1998 — Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen vote 2-1 to close Vicksburg Municipal, initiating a nearly four-year legal battle with local business interests wishing to keep the airport open.

• 1999 — Circuit Court Judge Frank Vollor rules Vicksburg Municipal must remain open.

• 2002 — Mississippi Supreme Court reverses, saying city officials have the authority to close municipal airport if they wish.

• 2004 — Under a new administration, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen choose to keep Vicksburg Municipal open for at least seven more years.

• December 2007 — After 14 years of ineligibility, federal funds become available to Vicksburg Municipal once again.

• July 2008 — A fire station and remodeled terminal at Vicksburg Municipal are planned.