Airport lands tenant, looks to expand

Published 11:00 am Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vicksburg Municipal Airport director Sam Washington stands in front of a plane in May. (Justin Sellers/The Vicksburg Post)

Vicksburg Municipal Airport director Sam Washington stands in front of a plane in May. (Justin Sellers/The Vicksburg Post)

An aircraft rental service is expected to occupy the largest hangar at Vicksburg Municipal Airport in the coming months, the facility’s director said Wednesday.

Marc Inc. is about to complete a contract with the airport to house multiple small aircraft in the old “MRC hangar”, the onetime home of the Mississippi River Commission jet, airport director Sam Washington said in an address to the Vicksburg Lions Club.

The company is an aircraft rental service based in Bolton, not far from John Bell Williams Airport, a major competitor for Vicksburg’s city-owned airport and Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound, La.

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“They will bring a number of twin-engine aircraft with them to house in that hangar,” Washington said, adding he expects the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to approve the contract “within a couple of weeks.”

Washington said securing a tenant for the airport dovetails onto his earlier stated theme of using the airport as an economic development engine and not merely a runway for aviation enthusiasts.

“Unfortunately, many people have an impression that the airport is just a playground for rich guys who have a lot of money, go out with their toys and play around,” Washington said. “And that’s what they think. They don’t ask questions about it.”

“Last week, International Paper flew in a Falcon 2000 for something going on at the mill,” he said. “That’s an eight- to 10 passenger plane.”

“The airport should be what helps draw people to the community — and bring jobs, tax revenue and everything that goes along with that.”

The hangar had been home to the MRC jet until it moved to VTR by the mid-2000s. Washington said he’s been talking to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, economic development officials and business interests to keep the airport a viable option for corporate trips.

Improvements in the works at the airport on U.S. 61 South involve making the runway about 6,500 feet longer. That means buying out property on the south end of the 5,001-foot strip. Much of the land south of the airport is agricultural and figures to be an easier buy for the city than buying out residential areas to the north of the facility, which opened in 1950. A recent bid on re-sealing cracks in the apron went for about $80,000, Washington said.

The runway extension figures to run “many millions of dollars,” he said, noting the expense of airport improvements. In 2011, a $4 million federal grant financed a parallel taxiway and nighttime landing lights at VTR, which Washington counted as an advantage for VTR because it allows planes to land more easily in inclement weather. VKS was put back on the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of airports eligible for improvement dollars only a year before that.

Washington took the reins of the city-owned airport May 12 when previous director Curt Follmer retired. A licensed pilot, Washington teaches commercial aviation at Delta State University.

The new director acknowledged the competition for the same pool of clients — chiefly general aviation pilots and corporate jets — as VTR and other general aviation airports in Mississippi.

“There’s always a level of competition between airports,” he said in response to a question. “General aviation airports are closing at an alarming rate already. So, yeah, we’re going to have a certain amount of competition, but we don’t need to be at each other’s throats.”

The airport’s terminal was renovated in 2010 for about $300,000, which flowed from a $1.3 million federal block grant awarded after Hurricane Katrina. A year later, a new fire station was completed there using the same grant.

Since 2012, the airport has been treated as a city department. Previously, daily operations were subject to approval from a five-member board. VTR, which opened in 1993, is owned jointly by the four local government entities in Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish. Appointment of a fifth member on the Mound airport’s advisory board swings between the county and parish every three years.