Day one on the job

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 3, 2009

To kick off his first full day in office, Mayor Paul Winfield took a tour of the Vicksburg Municipal Airport, attended the airport board’s monthly meeting and later said the city will likely continue supporting both the facility on U.S. 61 South and the Vicksburg-Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound, La.

“We really don’t have any other choice,” he said. “We’ve made commitments here and over there.”

Winfield was sworn in Wednesday afternoon by Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes, and is to repeat the oath at an inauguration ceremony at Vicksburg Convention Center today. North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield and South Ward Alderman Sid Beaumn, who both ran unopposed this year, are also to be sworn in at the 6 p.m. ceremony.

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Winfield said he had not toured the grounds of the Vicksburg airport before Thursday morning. In their meeting, airport manager Curt Follmer, the board and representatives from Neel-Schaffer engineering firm — which this spring completed an ambitious 20-year airport layout plan — laid out the short-term goals and long-term vision for the facility, which dates to 1950. They talked about everything from ongoing renovations and grant projects to a new, 8,500-foot runway that is likely five years out and the possibility of a new harbor being built just west of the airport.

“It has the potential to be a great project. I want everybody thinking big… this is certainly an area that’s been underutilized,” said Winfield, who did much more listening than talking during the meeting. 

The Vicksburg and Mound airports have been a point of contention for decades. In October, former Mayor Laurence Leyens  began pushing for more investment in the Vicksburg airport and limiting the city’s partnership with Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish in funding the newer facility across the Mississippi River.

The municipal partners established VTR about 25 years ago with a $6 million federal grant. Under the 1983 agreement it would become the primary airport serving the area and receiving Federal Aviation Administration funds. The airport opened in 1993, and in the years following Vicksburg officials began pushing to close the Vicksburg airport and became entwined in a legal battle with local residents and large business owners.

In 2002 the battle reached the Mississippi Supreme Court, which ruled Vicksburg could legally close its airport, but by that time Leyens had taken office and he committed to keeping it open. In 2007, the Vicksburg airport began receiving FAA funds again after 14 years of ineligibility.

Eight months before losing his bid for a third term, Leyens made the Vicksburg airport an official city department, hired Follmer, contracted a Birmingham consultant, got an in-house renovation of the 60-year-old terminal underway and commissioned the airport layout plan. He also began courting a private firm to bring a $60 million defense technology testing facility to Vicksburg, which would be partially located at the airport. Follmer said that project — which is built into the layout plan and hinges largely on federal earmarks — is still a possibility.

“The last I heard, they just passed one of the hurdles and it’s still going forward,” Follmer told the board and Winfield.

In December, Leyens initiated a re-negotiation of the city’s agreement to support VTR with its three municipal partners as the contract was to renew for another 25 years. The city pushed for a five-year deal, which all verbally agreed to and all but the Warren County Board of Supervisors officially approved. Following the June 2 general election — in which Winfield beat Leyens with 61.6 percent of the vote — the supervisors said they wanted to revisit the contract and commit to the original 25-year pact. Winfield, who served as the county board’s attorney from 2005 to 2008, has agreed the contract needs to be looked at again and a longer commitment may be necessary. However, he added both airports should be able to co-exist.

“I really see both operations as serving different purposes,” he said.

Neither airport is a major expense. Both have operated primarily on revenue from landing fees and fuel sales.


Contact Steve Sanoski at