By Robbie Ward and Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Tupelo City Council on Tuesday rejected a $1.2 million capital request from the Tupelo Regional Airport Authority for upgrades, a move that prompts airport officials to search for funding from other sources.
The council has discussed the request for months with Tupelo Regional Airport Authority members and leadership at Universal Asset Management, an aircraft recycling company based at the airport.
UAM has supported the capital request and said it would improve working conditions for the company. Dozens of UAM employees attended the council meeting in support of the airport request.
Keri Wright, CEO and president of UAM, told the council before the vote the company has pledged $29 million to salaries and benefits, utility costs and supplies in the community.
“We’re definitely on the same page,” Wright told the council. “I think we’re on the same page; we just need to work closer together to get there.”
The company employs 85.
The council has previously voted to pay $107,000 toward improving a taxiway at the airport used by UAM to move heavy aircraft to the facility. Before denying the much larger request, council members urged further negotiations with the airport authority and UAM for more support above the $1.2 million that has been offered by the airport authority toward the project.
“I’m hoping we can compromise and put some funding toward this,” Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said. “I’d be in favor of increasing our participating in this process.”
With this denial for funding, the airport’s leadership in April will pursue funding via a competitive grant.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton has said the city is willing to negotiate how much taxpayer funds to put toward the capital project but UAM hasn’t been willing to financially support the project.
“I just want to publicly state again Tupelo is willing to negotiate matters and we’re committed to protecting jobs in our city,” Shelton said. “We’re willing to negotiate when it’s done in an acceptable manner.”
Wright said after the meeting that she’s left messages with unnamed council members in the past month but none have been returned.
“I’ve always been open to negotiations, to answer any questions anybody has,” she said.
Some City Council members have voiced concerns that rejecting the airport request could lead UAM to leave the city.
“At the end of the day we’re a business and our management team is not going to let any roadblock stop us,” Wright said.
UAM employee Jonah McBride, who’s been employed at UAM for two months, was unemployed for a year before joining the company.
“I came to UAM for a great job,” he said. “We get great benefits, it’s a cool place to work. I don’t know how we got to this point….”