By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Months of wrangling over a $1.2 million capital expenditure request by the Tupelo Airport Authority culminated in a 7-0 vote by the City Council against the measure on Tuesday.
The work would have repaired a taxiway and part of the old runway used primarily by Universal Asset Management, the airport’s largest tenant.
But the council, airport board and UAM officials ultimately couldn’t decide who should pay for what. UAM said it was the city’s and airport’s responsibility to make the improvements. The city said UAM tore up the taxiway and should pay for at least half of the cost.
While City Council members voiced their support for the company and its employees, they said they didn’t have enough information about the project or UAM’s plans, despite several meetings held during the past few months.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton repeatedly said the city was willing to negotiate, but not under a take-it-or-leave-it stance UAM seemed to be taking.
“I can’t speak for the council, but the unanimous vote was a strong signal that. … we’re not going to be subjected to strong-arm, negative tactics,” he said.
Shelton was referring to UAM President and CEO Keri Wright’s insinuation that it might leave if it’s unable to land additional planes that it disassembles.
“At a certain point, that decision will have to be made, but I think it’s beyond clear that UAM is making its best effort putting its foot forward to try and grow jobs in the Tupelo area,” Wright said after Tuesday’s meeting.
But Shelton and council members say not all their questions have been answered despite the meetings.
He said UAM has provided figures showing their investment in Tupelo and promises of future investment. But the details are missing in how those numbers were developed, Shelton said.
The city has been willing to pay for half the cost of the project, provided UAM pay at least half. The offer still stands, he said.
“The other part of why a shared commitment is important is that $1.2 million isn’t all they’re asking for,” Shelton said. “It’s just what they want now. They have a wish list from $4 million to $7 million. … (but) we can’t get any type of response from them of what’s needed.”
Shelton maintains the $107,000 fix he and the City Council approved to patch the taxiway is sufficient in the meantime to meet lease obligations. Beyond that, it’s in UAM’s hands to decide whether or not to talk.
“I’m hopeful we can get back to the table and have a meaningful discussion,” Shelton said. “We’re committed to do what we can to protect the jobs and the facility. … Again, I can’t speak for the council, but the general consensus of the city leadership is that we want UAM to negotiate in good faith and see what can be done to keep those jobs.”