AROUND THE DELTA — When prospective businesses compare site selection notes, close proximity to an airport is an important factor, and one in which the Mississippi Delta has a surprising advantage.
“Greenville and Greenwood’s airports were originally built as airbases by the federal government and have been continually upgraded over the years,” said Elton Jay, director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division. “They are incredibly important when a new industry is looking to move into the area. Now we hope the new runway in Tunica County, even though it is coming about to help support the needs of the gaming industry, will also bring other industry to that part of Northwest Mississippi.”
According to the latest figures available from the MDOT Aeronautics Division, Delta airports contribute more than $34 million every year to the economy. Annually, Greenville generates more than $16 million, while Greenwood accounts for nearly $9 million. Nine other Delta airports make up the difference.
“The Delta’s definitely blessed with a network of very good airports,” said Alan Hammons, board member of the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board & Economic Development Foundation.
Greenwood, Greenville, Indianola and Clarksdale have airports that were constructed by the military in World War II, with facilities and infrastructure far beyond what municipalities of its sizes could normally build, Hammons said.
“If we were to build today what we have now, courtesy of Uncle Sam from the war, we could easily go through $100 million,” Hammons said. “Fortunately, the FAA has a funding program where, provided the requirements are met, they will pay 90% if local entities put up 10%, and that’s one way communities like ours can fund upgrade projects.”
Other Delta cities with airports include Clarksdale, Cleveland, home of Delta State University, Hollandale, Marks, Ruleville, Tunica and Yazoo City.
Built in 1942 as an Army Air Corps training field, the Mid Delta Regional Airport, with an 8,000-foot runway, is the only commercial airport within a 100-mile radius of Greenville serving the Mississippi Delta. Located approximately three miles north of Greenville, MDRA is situated on 2,000 acres, with a sizable portion in the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone.
MDRA’s major tenants include Acme Screw, a company specializing in cold forging metal fasteners; Superior Powder, a dry powder plating specialist; VDC&I, the nation’s largest aerial pest control company; and Delta Conservation Demonstration Center, a quasi-private government agency providing a 650-acre display area for new technology and conservation practices for agriculture.
“Because seven states have signed up to use the Delta Conservation Demonstration Center to train new USDA agriculture employees, the center has had a tremendous economic impact on the community,” said Cliff Nash, MDRA airport director. “The center provides an ambassador role as the employees travel to other states and talk about our community.”
Northwest Airlink provides three daily arrivals and departures to Memphis. “Northwest’s frequent flyer programs offer business travelers a very good deal, and the total travel cost of mileage and wear and tear and time involved with professionals traveling on a by-the-hour basis makes a big difference in travel cost,” Nash said.
The busiest rural airport in the Delta, Greenwood Leflore Airport, is the state’s only 24-hour manned FAA facility. Its concrete parking apron for airplanes encompasses nearly 60 acres, one of the largest in the state.
“Our weather tracking ability, tower and length of runway has been a magnet for aviation-related industries in Northwest Mississippi,” said Cliff Brumfield, executive director of the Greenwood-LeFlore Industrial Board & Economic Development Foundation. “Often in times of bad weather, planes destined for other locations are routed here.”
The Memphis Group, Federal Express’ sole manager of spare parts inventory, Thompson Avionics, Cotton Built Aviation, Provine Flying Service and MidSouth Jet are located there. Kimmel Aviation Inc., an agricultural aircraft parts dealer and Exxon dealer, leases hangar space and has a contract to sell fuel to the military. In addition to doubling as a busy shipping center, the airport is home to more than 70 locally-owned private aircraft, including Viking Range and Irwin Automotive.
“We’re working on a project to lengthen the 6,503-foot runway to 8,000 feet, at a cost of $4 million, and expect to see additional growth when that occurs,” Brumfield said.
In January, Tunica County officials announced plans to invest $40 million to increase the runway length and to provide additional hangers and a terminal at the Tunica County Airport. Phase I will increase the runway to 5,500 feet with an expected completion date of 2003. Phase 2 will increase the runway to 7,000 feet and will be capable of landing 727s by 2005.
“Being able to offer vacation packages, complete with air fare, will further solidify our position as the No. 3 gaming destination in the U.S.,” said Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ken Murphree, administrator for Tunica County, said feasibility studies for the expansion were based on charter flights for the area’s casinos and general aviation.
“Our market has been a phenomenon in the gaming industry,” he said. “We want to continue that growth and the economic prosperity it has brought to Northwest Mississippi and the tax revenues we have brought to the state. This airport is going to be very important to reach out and expand our market.”
With crowded conditions at the Memphis International Airport, charter flights are often delayed, Murphree said.
“Memphis has been an ally to us in getting approval and getting this airport built,” he said. “There’s a sense of economic opportunity that hasn’t existed in decades.”
Other Delta airports
The Yazoo County Airport, located two miles west of Yazoo City, may have played an important role in landing the multi-phase federal prison project that is currently under expansion.
“It’s very important to this area to have this airport,” said Jerry Frazier, president and CEO of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce. “The amount of traffic to the airport is going to be increasing as we build another prison. We’re currently talking to Nissan suppliers and they like the idea of having the airport here to handle their corporate planes. Mississippi Chemical and Pride Hardwood fly in and out of here routinely.”
Built in 1993, the 5,000-foot lighted runway was upgraded last year, and the airport houses two agricultural businesses and a repair service.
Annual airport economic impact figures for other Delta airports, according to MDOT Aeronautics Division, are:
• Cleveland Municipal Airport; $3.4 million
• Fletcher Field, Clarksdale; $2.3 million
• Indianola Municipal Airport; $1.9 million
• Yazoo County Airport; $500,000
• Ruleville-Drew Airport, Ruleville; $387,000
• Tunica Municipal Airport; $337,500
• Hollandale Municipal Airport; $225,200
• Belzoni Municipal Airport; $173, 700
• Self’s Airport, Marks; $14,300
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.