Southern river port returns to table

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 10, 2009

Interest in creating a Mississippi River port west of Vicksburg Municipal Airport has the potential to turn the facility into a “gold mine,” the chairman of the airport’s board said at the group’s monthly meeting.

Such a port, discussed for decades, was a factor in the initial decision to build Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in 1983 and a 2-1 vote by city officials in 1998 to close the airport on U.S. 61 South.

In the new discussion, the new river port and old airport would co-exist. Whether a port will be built in the next 30 years is recognized in the airport’s new layout plan, which a Jackson consulting firm began composing after the Vicksburg officials now in office decided to commit to redevelopment.

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The layout plan, which maps out the intended changes at the airport, must be accompanied by a three-decade forecast in order to satisfy the Federal Aviation Administration.

An undisclosed engineering firm from Madison has begun informally assessing a 184-acre site adjacent to the airport to try to determine whether a port can be built there, said Kimble Slaton, chairman of the Vicksburg Municipal Airport’s board. Potential problems flagged by the engineers can be addressed if state and local authorities decide to formally study the feasibility of establishing a port by the airport.

While noting that plans for a port were “long-term” and “very preliminary,” Slaton and other airport board members seemed excited about the prospect of a port near the airport.

In the 1983 and earlier discussions, a motivation for a new slack-water port was that all or almost all of sites at the Port of Vicksburg and E.W. Haining Industrial Center off the Yazoo River were full.

“All of a sudden, our little airport down here has turned into a possible gold mine,” Slaton said at the airport panel’s monthly meeting Thursday, citing an increase in air traffic that would result from adjacent river access.

The airport layout plan, which is being drawn up by Neil-Schaffer of Jackson, will not be formally submitted to the FAA until April, according to Mayor Laurence Leyens, but the mayor said that a “white paper” summarizing the plan’s preliminary contents will be available in about two weeks.

Sketches from the plan were handed out Thursday at the airport board meeting.

It calls for a new, longer runway roughly 600 feet to the west of the current runway, which would become a taxiway. Shifting the runway west would reduce visibility problems posed to pilots by trees and obstacles, notably the vapor release tower at Entergy’s Baxter-Wilson Steam Electric Plan.

Neil-Schaffer’s work on the layout plan has been significantly influenced by Leyens and Loyce Clark, a Birmingham-based consultant hired by the city last year to help out with the project, Slaton said. According to the chairman, board members who went to a recent meeting with the city’s consultants found that “the mayor and Loyce Clark had already dreamed up an airport for us.”

Vicksburg has already funded a new fire station at the airport $1.3 million in grant money it received in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The city is also remodeling the facility’s terminal. Slaton said the board is also hoping for federal money to revitalize hangar aprons, which are like porches where planes sit before heading to the runway.

For many years after VTR opened at Mound, La., in 1993, Vicksburg invested nothing in the municipal airport. That changed under the Leyens administration, starting with a $650,000 state grant for runway work. Leyens has also said the city should only have a short-term renewal, if any, of its one-fourth ownership share in VTR. The other owners are Warren County, Madison Parish and Tallulah.

Thursday’s airport board meeting was the first attended by Curt Follmer, a former casino executive whom the city hired as the facility’s general manager in December.

Follmer and Frank May, who held the general manager position from 1994 until Follmer’s hire, have yet to formally work out a division of duties. May has continued to work at the airport since Follmer’s hiring, supervising day-to-day operations of the complex. Follmer said he concentrates on the airport’s business affairs, such as the paying of bills, at his office in City Hall.

In other action, the board lowered prices of the fuel sold at the airport. Aviation fuel, which was $4.05 per gallon last month, now sells for $3.33 a gallon. Jet fuel, also $4.05 per gallon last month, is now $3.95 per gallon.


Contact Ben Bryant at