By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo Regional Airport can proceed with a $1.85 million improvement project after the City Council on Monday unanimously reversed an earlier decision to reject the federal grant that will fund 95 percent of the costs.
Council members offered their support – albeit begrudgingly in one case – of the Federal Aviation Administration grant after a 90-minute meeting with airport officials at City Hall.
“We have to support our airport,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell during the vote. “We’ve got some issues that we have to work on. We’re pretty much boxed in at this point, and we’ve got to support it.”
Newell and other council members had raised numerous concerns about not only the grant but about airport management. They also questioned whether the grant was an attempt by the airport to benefit its main tenant, Universal Asset Management, on the backs of city taxpayers.
In accepting the grant, the city assumes a 2.5 percent financial match. The state puts up an additional 2.5 percent.
But the airport’s contract with UAM, which dismantles large aircraft on airport property that it leases for $85,000 annually, requires the airport to maintain and improve its facility. In exchange, UAM agrees to hire at least 100 employees with a $4.6 million payroll within three years, said airport Executive Director Josh Abramson.
“This is not a UAM grant … this is a grant for TRA,” Abramson said. “One of the byproducts of having tenants is that when you do improvements at the airport, those tenants will benefit.”
UAM occupies about 60 percent of the former Army Aviation Support Facility that the city and airport purchased five years ago for $1.8 million. An additional 13,000 square feet remains unoccupied. Abramson said the airport needs to fill that space to break even on the debt repayment it still owes for the purchase.
Roughly 10 other companies lease airport property and will benefit from the improvements, as well.
“Without a successful airport in this city we don’t make the short list on so many companies’ economic development plans,” said airport authority member Rocky Miskelly. “Toyota, we would have never made the short list … we all know the airport has value.”
About two dozen UAM employees were in attendance at the meeting. Among them were UAM CEO Steve Manley and CFO Keri Wright, who came in from Memphis.
Wright said that despite the council’s repeated questions and negative comments about the jet dismantling company, UAM doesn’t regret locating in Tupelo.
She also said UAM runs a clean business that is perhaps misunderstood by the community.
“We welcome feedback,” Wright said, encouraging the public to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manley declined to comment.
Several council members said they support the airport and the project but had too many questions to have approved the grant at their Aug. 21 meeting.
“There’s too much confusion, too many figures …,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis.
The council had rejected the grant in a 5-2 vote, with Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington and council President Fred Pitts of Ward 2 supporting it.
Airport Authority Chairman Ty Robinson offered an olive branch, saying airport officials accept responsibility for the lack of communication and will do better to update the city regularly on all developments.
“We haven’t been talking to y’all at all, and I apologize for that,” Robinson said. “We’re talking about an update every other week to let you know what’s going on at the airport. Josh (Abramson) printed out a roster of all airport members, phone numbers, email addresses. We’re here to help the city.”
The grant will fund security system improvements, taxiway rehabilitation, concrete apron expansions and a new air-conditioning system.
If the city hadn’t approved the grant – the deadline was midnight Monday – the funds would have gone to another airport, Abramson said. But the city could have applied again next year.
“We’ve found our shortcomings,” Abramson said after the vote, “and we’re all about moving forward with the city and airport together.”