Over the years, policy making has come from a narrow power corridor that starts at Jackson City and ends in the office suites at Jackson Evers, excluding a vast population the airport serves. An outdated governance model is to blame.
Such a model has brought limited vision and near-stagnation. No wonder city officials see the airport as little more than a place where aircraft come and go and a place to secure contracts for Jackson businesses. (Forty-eight percent of airport contracts in 2015 went to Jackson businesses; 3 percent of contracts went to Mississippi businesses outside of Jackson.)
All the while, huge transformations have occurred in commercial aviation in the United States and the industries that serve it. The upheaval has made winners of airports that adapt, and under-achievers, or even losers, of the others.
Sadly, Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers is slipping into a place among the losers. New visions and new resources can stop its slide, however. We are seeing movement in that direction from our state’s lawmakers. For that we are grateful.
A region of nearly a half million people has grown up around the commercial airport in the six decades since the City of Jackson ventured into rural Rankin County to establish it. The airport has been under the leadership of Jackson City Hall through a charter the Mississippi Legislature saw fit to award at the airport’s inception.
Today, recognition is growing among legislators that the earlier charter no longer serves a region that looks nothing like it did at the airport’s founding in the early 1960s.
Change is overdue.
That is the message Mississippi’s Senate sent last week with strong approval of legislation to transfer policy control from an exclusively Jackson governing board to one created by the state and reflecting the airport’s maturation into a regional asset.
Unsurprisingly, the debate has hit some raw nerves. City officials and many residents protest that adding representatives from throughout Metro Jackson to the airport’s policy board hijacks something belonging to Jacksonians and no one else.
More specifically, protestors call the expansion of policy-making authority a “taking” in the way that governments take private property. It’s an entirely false claim but one that could carry influence in a state that abhors most every variety of eminent domain.
To counter that, supporters of expanding the airport’s policy-making board must continue to emphasize that no diversion will occur with either city-owned airport property or tax revenues Jackson is accustomed to receiving from Jackson Evers International.
Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber and others at City Hall are beginning to frame Sen. Josh Harkins’ legislation as a civil rights infringement. True enough, political representation and civil rights are relevant here. What Mayor Yarber and his allies overlook is that the establishing of new leadership is about more fairly reflecting the populations the airport serves.
The last census put Jackson’s population at around 150,000 people in a metro area of about 600,000 people. The unfairness here is in disenfranchising 450,000 people.
Once again, it is important to emphasize that this move is intended to bring progress to a stagnant operation. Central Mississippi should not watch from a distance as a huge regional asset puts off needed facilities upgrades, fails to budget sufficiently to offset depreciation of its facilities, and relies on carriers still at the airport to pay increasingly higher landing and facilities fees that are passed on to passengers.
Jackson City Hall and an airport board appointed by the city’s mayors have few, if any, accomplishments to cite, unless ever-increasing air fares, higher parking charges and rental-car fees can be called progress.
What City Hall and its appointed board can cite belongs on the deficit side of the ledger: downgrades in debt ratings, departure of low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines and inattention to the commercial development of tracts of land around the airport the Airport Authority owns.
Interviewed before his retirement as CEO in fall 2014, Dirk Vanderleest said policy setters must do serious belt-tightening if the Airport Authority hoped to restore a Fitch Ratings Service debt downgrade that followed the announcement that Southwest was packing up and leaving.
No tightening has occurred, nor is any likely to under the current setup.
We hope leaders in the Mississippi House will keep most – but not all – of Sen. Harkins’ bill intact. The senator had not intended to include Hawkins Field, Jackson’s general aviation airport, in the legislation. He says he did so at the urging of Airport Authority CEO Carl Newman.
Mr. Newman, according to Sen. Harkins, worries that Hawkins Field can’t survive without a subsidy from revenues generated at Jackson Evers. We appreciate the Airport Authority CEO’s concern but that concern goes to the heart of why change must come to governance of the commercial airport. No reason exists for dollars spent by air travelers from Madison, Byram, Pearl, Flowood, Clinton and elsewhere to fund an airport inside Jackson serving private aircraft owners.
Consolidation of airlines and the bankruptcies of many others over the years have brought struggles to commercial airports across the country. The ones healthy today have created new revenue sources from the assets they have, including land and buildings. Some have received assists from state, regional and local governments willing to create incentives for carriers and other commercial enterprises. These sources have also helped to provide needed infrastructure and enact flexible land-use policies.
Jackson-Evers can do the same, but threats of lawsuits from Jackson officials and their backers in the Legislature cause us to suspect they want to keep the City Hall power corridor intact rather than enhance an economic asset.
Let’s replace a vision that is limited geographically and otherwise with a more expansive one. And then start pursuing some ambitious goals.