By TED CARTER
What the State of Mississippi gives it can take away, state Sen. Josh Harkins insists in explaining his push to create a tri-county board to control Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.
With tens of thousands of people having moved out of Jackson to Rankin and Madison counties in recent decades, Jackson is not the suitable ruler for the airport it was 53 years ago when the commercial airport moved from Hawkins Field to land Jackson annexed in Rankin County, Harkins said in an interview last week.
Harkins’ airport-control proposal guarantees an uproar in the Capitol this session, with Jackson officials and their supporters seeing the proposal as yet another instance of legislators giving the Capital City the short end of things. “We oppose any and all efforts to reconstitute… the Board of Commissioners for the Jackson Municipal Authority,” Rosie Pridgen, Authority chairwoman, said in a prepared statement.
Pridgen declined to answer a series of specific questions on the proposed power shift. Likewise, Mayor Tony Yarber did not respond to several requests for his perspective on the possible airport takeover.
In her statement, Pridgen insisted the airport is governed efficiently and effectively by commissioners appointed by the mayor and is “an exemplary catalyst for Jackson’s community and economic development.”
On the other hand, the airport should be much more than a city asset that prides itself on awarding nearly half of its contract dollars to Jackson businesses, Harkins and supporters of the power transfer would argue.
A more regional approach must be taken, Harkins said. “The landscape has changed such that the population has shifted out of Jackson. I think more traffic is coming from Madison and Rankin counties.”
Harkins has yet to introduce his legislation but he has discussed it with Airport Authority Executive Director Carl Newman and fellow senators from Jackson. “They don’t like it,” he said of the legislators. “But what other position can they take?”
Harkins said his bill would leave ownership of the airport with the City and would allow Jackson to continue to keep sales tax money the airport generates. Hawkins Field, the Airport Authority-owned general aviation airport, would be left alone – for now, he said. “There will more than likely be some discussions around it but I have not included it in my bill.”
Harkins said Senate lawyers have assured him the State can dissolve the Municipal Airport Authority and replace it with members from Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties hand-picked by the governor.
“I have been told by the attorneys here at the Senate we created the Airport Authority and we can create another one,” Harkins said.
He discussed the issue with Gov. Phil Bryant over the holidays, he said. “I think he wants to look at whatever we can to see what we can do to make it a better situation.”
Knox Graham, spokesman for Bryant, said the governor “looks forward to having a discussion on how to revitalize the Jackson Municipal Airport.”
Harkins said in addition to creating an airport governing board with a regional perspective, he wants a board with more business and aviation expertise. His bill, he said, would “require board members to bring something of value.”
The goal, he said, is a broader board, “one that has expertise and can give assistance to recruit new airlines and new business. The airport has been out there 67 years. There’s nothing out there. It’s stagnant.”
The current board is made up of Rosie Pridgen, a retired superintendent of the Mississippi School for the Blind; the Rev. James Henley Jr., a pastor, CPA and lawyer; LaWanda Harris, a registered nurse; Vernon W. Hartley, owner of an environmental consulting company; and Evelyn O. Reed, a retired special assistant with the U.S. Probation Office.
Harkins said his constituents and those of Dean Kirby, a Republican senator from Pearl, share a big stake in the success of the airport. “This sits in the middle of my and Sen. Kirby’s districts,” he said.
“And this impacts the economic growth of my area. That is why I have a vested interest in the success of it.”
Harkins said some of his push comes from Jackson City Hall’s refusal to give the airport and west Rankin County a say in addressing the multiple problems at Jackson’s Savanna Street sewage plant, even though the area accounts for “40 percent” of the flow to the plant. When poor maintenance at the plant led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to put the plant under a consent decree that mandated expensive improvements, “We couldn’t do anything about it because we don’t have any representation,” Harkins said.
Jackson city officials are also fighting a plan by Rankin County to establish a sewage plant in the west part of the county.