Residents give views on airport’s future

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vicksburg resident Fred Lachney explains why the Vicksburg Municipal Airport should remain open at Thursday's public hearing. Below, Dan Fordice, a Vicksburg resident who has planes at Vicksburg-Tallulah, outlines the reasons for closing the airport in favor of Vicksburg-Tallulah.

Vicksburg resident Fred Lachney explains why the Vicksburg Municipal Airport should remain open at Thursday’s public hearing. Below, Dan Fordice, a Vicksburg resident who has planes at Vicksburg-Tallulah, outlines the reasons for closing the airport in favor of Vicksburg-Tallulah.

Is the Vicksburg Municipal Airport an important tool for recruiting business or a waste of taxpayers’ money and should be closed?

About 40 people met at the City Hall Annex Thursday to discuss that issue, with the majority saying they supported keeping the 57-year-old airport open to general aviation traffic. Others, however, said the airport was dangerous and urged the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to close it in favor of Vicksburg-Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound, La., which is jointly owned by the city, Warren County, Madison Parish, La., and Tallulah, La.

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. on July 8 called the public hearing to discuss the airport’s fate and get citizens’ comments on the facility after meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials in Jackson.

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The airport is being considered as a possible site for the city’s proposed sports complex, but Flaggs told the group Thursday night the sports complex was not an issue in the facility’s future.

“This hearing should not and will not have anything to do with a sports complex at all,” he said. “This is not a public hearing to determine whether or not a sports complex goes there.

“Chances are we will never have another airport (if Vicksburg is closed),” he said. He said the airport would not be shut down until pilots with planes here have a hangar at Vicksburg-Tallulah.

“The decision to close the Vicksburg Municipal Airport does not rest on the shoulders of the city,” Flaggs said. “It rests on the shoulders of the FAA.”

He told the group the board would make a decision on the airport Aug. 3. One of the board’s main concerns is the potential $1.3 reimbursement of FAA and Mississippi Department of Transportation grant funds if the airport is closed. The bulk of that amount is $813,794 in federal funds.

There are other financial considerations.

According to information from the city’s accounting office, the airport has run deficits of $126,200 in 2011, $78,912.58 in 2012, and $121,606.81 in 2103. It shows a $17,043 deficit for fiscal 2014, according to the city’s recently completed audit report. One reason for the drop in 2014, city accounting director Doug Whittington said, was the retirement of former airport director Curt Follmer, who was paid $60,000 a year plus benefits as a full-time director.

The city now has a part-time director.

The airport’s budget for fiscal 2013 was $467,820. It was $438,962 for 2015.

According to the city accounting department, the city’s share for Vicksburg-Tallulah operations totaled $49,900 in 2011, $48,907 in 2012, $65,074 in 2013, and $44,483 in payments in 2014. So far, it has spent $29,252 in fiscal 2015.

“I don’t think we have to fight this battle again, but unfortunately, we do,” said Cappaert Homes owner Mike Cappaert, one of the business owners who in the 1990s sued the city over the airport. He said his company over the years has spent as much as $900,000 on fuel for the planes it keeps at the airport.

“Whenever taxes were involved, that money spent went either to Warren County, the city or the State of Mississippi,” he said. Had his plane been at Vicksburg-Tallulah, he said, the tax revenue would have gone to Madison Parish, Tallulah or the State of Louisiana.”

Cappaert, whose business is across U.S. 61 South from the airport, said access to the airport was the reason he selected the site for his building.

“We fly consumers in here, we bring all our customers in here; our dealerships come into the Vicksburg Airport. A lot of our vendors who visit us on a quarterly and semi-annual basis, when they send their corporate executives from their corporate offices, they come here,” he said. “It is vital to us.”

“We’re starting on this again,” said resident Jimmy Gouras, a former Vicksburg city planner, referring to the city’s move in the late 1990s to close the airport in favor of Vicksburg-Tallulah.

“The Vicksburg Municipal Airport is a key tool in our economic development package,” he said. “Vicksburg has a very difficult time attracting industry and business. It’s a very competitive process, and to close the airport takes away a valuable tool out of our package. It can’t help us. All it can do is hurt us.”

Gouras said he was responsible for the airport when he was with the city, and the city obtained state funds to develop the area around the airport and improve the facility with the goal of keeping it open. He also worked on Vicksburg-Tallulah.

“If we close the airport, we will lose a vital asset and it will never come back,” Gouras said.

According to information from the airport, from fiscal 2011 through 2014, the airport averaged 2,836 operations per year, but the number of operations has steadily declined from 3,534 in 2011 to 2,224 in 2014. Fuel sales averaged an estimated $243,124 for the four-year period, and fuel sales have also declined from $294,267 in 2011 to $175,688.

Southern Heritage Air Foundation board member Dan Fordice, a Vicksburg resident and pilot who has planes at Vicksburg-Tallulah, said the travel distance by car from Vicksburg-Tallulah to Vicksburg was about 7.5 miles, adding “that’s not going to be a deal killer for anybody.”

He said the airports for St. Louis and Cincinnati, Ohio, were located in other areas.

He said the city could recover reimbursements to the FAA and MDOT from the money it saved by not having to keep the airport open.

“We’re spending $200 to $450,000 a year on an aging facility and you’re not getting $2 to $400,000 in tax receipts on fuel,” he said. “There’s no other city in the state the size of Vicksburg that has two airports.

“What I’m for in this community is the best thing we can get for aviation,” Fordice said. “And we can’t support two airports here. We’re going to spend a lot of money for the rest of time if we try to have two airports here.”

Tallulah also has a general aviation airport, Scott Airport, east of the city.

Phil Lawson of Lawson Aviation, which has planes at the municipal airport, said the airport could be expanded.

“You don’t want to lose a valuable airport,” he said.

Closing the airport, he said, “That’s like telling local businesses, ‘We’re turning our back on you.’”

Steve Golding, president of Golding Barge Line Inc., said he took charter flights for business trips for 35 years from Vicksburg-Tallulah before buying his own company plane, which is kept across the river.

“Every single charter service since Vicksburg-Tallulah opened has told me, ‘I’d rather pick you up at Vicksburg-Tallulah.’ I always asked them why, and they said, ‘Safety, number 1. It’s a much safer airport to get into, especially if it’s bad weather.’”

If he couldn’t have found hangar space for his plane at Vicksburg-Tallulah, he said, “I’d have gone to Raymond or Jackson.” The main reason he spurned the municipal airport, he said, “you’ve got the power plant to the north and the hills to the south and what you have is what you have. I’m not going to take chances with my life, my family’s life or my employees.

“We’re not talking about closing Vicksburg’s airport,” he said. “We’re talking about closing a 60-year-old airport in favor of a much more improved 20-year-old airport. We’re not talking about cutting economic development. We’re talking about getting behind one airport and making it the very best airport we can have. I use my plane for economic development.”

Brenda Watson, a member of the Vicksburg Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, said closing the airport would hurt the CAP and force pilots and cadets to go to Jackson to fly, adding it might cause some cadets in the program to leave.

Richard Cowart reminded the board that when it signed an agreement to support Vicksburg-Tallulah in the 1990s, “we had an agreement that we were going to close this airport. Everybody agreed to use that airport, so we have dishonored our agreement, and it’s cost us money to do that, so we ought to honor our agreement and move there.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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