1,200 ReasonsBy ANTHONY WARREN,
State eyes undeveloped land in attempted takeover
State officials have at least 1,200 reasons they’re trying to take over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, namely the 1,200 acres of undeveloped land surrounding it.
A bill was passed in 2016 to do away with the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA), and replace it with a regional board, essentially taking the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport away from the city and transferring it to the state.
Jackson’s legal challenge to the takeover was still in discovery phase last week, with attorneys trying to find out the motives behind the attempt.
District 20 Sen. Josh Harkins, the main author behind the legislation calling for the takeover, says it’s no secret that his legislation was spurred in part by the airport land, more specifically the fact that it has remained undeveloped for decades.
“For 35 years the airport hasn’t changed. The only thing new out there is the UPS terminal,” he said. “You have to have action to promote it.”
However, the bill was passed prior to the extension of the East Metro Parkway. Before the completion of the second leg of the corridor, JMAA couldn’t access the land, even if they had marketed it.
Harkins authored SB 2162 in 2016. The bill sailed through the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.
Under the bill, JMAA would be replaced with a nine-member regional board, with only two of the nine being appointed by Jackson city officials.
Harkins said the bill isn’t a takeover, though, because Jackson would still own the airport and its land, and still receive the revenues from any leases made for property there.
However, without a majority on the new commission, Jackson’s elected leaders would have little say in how the land could be leased or to whom it could be leased.
Jackson-Evers sits on approximately 3,800 acres of land in Rankin County. The city began annexing property there in the 1960s, following the creation of the airport authority in 1960.
The property is located south of Lakeland Drive, along Airport Road and the East Metro Parkway.
Past the airport, Lakeland has become a hub for major retail, with Dogwood Festival, Dogwood Promenade and other shopping centers. In January, developers announced plans to bring a $400 million mixed-use project to private property along the East Metro Parkway. And last fall, plans were announced to bring a new conference center and hotel to Airport Road land across from the airport.
Land governed by JMAA, though, has remained virtually untouched, something that Harkins believes could be changed with new leadership.
Said Harkins, “We have a unique opportunity. (I would) love to see some aviation-related manufacturing that could utilize the airport infrastructure out there.”
JMAA officials countered the senator, saying they’ve been unable to develop much of the land because they didn’t have access to it. With the opening of a major section of the East Metro corridor last year, though, airport officials now have better access to about 800 acres.
“Until the parkway was completed to Old Brandon road, we simply could not get to the land,” JMAA Chief Executive Officer Carl Newman said. “The completion of the road has helped immensely.”
Harkins, though, said the land could have been developed, if the airport had the right people working on it.
The senator cites the construction of the Continental Tire Plant, which is being built outside of Clinton.
“There wasn’t infrastructure where Continental was. If they (the airport) had a big company come in, don’t think the state wouldn’t put in the infrastructure to access the area,” Harkins said. “You have to have action to promote it.
“If they had a big enough prospect on the hook, it would be something we’d consider. We’ve done it for Nissan, Toyota and Continental.”
Harkins said the takeover would ensure that the right people are in place, in part, by requiring board members to have certain qualifications to serve.
The nine-member panel would include one appointment each by the Jackson mayor, Jackson City Council, Madison County board of supervisors, Rankin County board of supervisors, the adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard, the executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), and the lieutenant governor. Two members would be appointed by the governor.
“MDA is the chief marketer of the state,” Harkins said. “(We’d be) putting people on the board – accountants, certified economic developers – those with that background. That’s what gives you some direction and guidance.”
The current board is made up of five members each appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. The only requirement is that current members live in the capital city.
Jackson Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote doesn’t support the takeover, especially the way in which it was done.
“The one thing that irritated me is that they could have come to the city six months or a year before and said “we’re not satisfied with your job performance.’
“If they had a problem with the way (the airport) was being run, why not approach the mayor or the council or both?,” he said. “They didn’t give us a chance to raise our game.”
Ward Two Councilman Melvin Priester believes politics could be the reason behind the takeover, and points to efforts in other “red states.”
In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to replace the commission governing the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. However, the effort was blocked by a federal judge.
And earlier this year, the Georgia Senate considered a bill to take over the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
In both cases, Republican-led state governments were attempting to take over airports controlled by Democratic-led states. Much like in Jackson, Atlanta’s airport authority controls thousands of acres of undeveloped land.
“It’s the modus operandi for leadership in states where you have a Democratic city in the middle of a Republican state,” Priester said. “I’ve gone from feeling picked on to realizing it’s part of the way things operate these days.”
Jackson is challenging the takeover in U.S. District Court. The case was still in discovery phase last week. Attorneys for the city want lawmakers to turn over all correspondence related to the airport, something that is being challenged by most state officials.
Gov. Phil Bryant is asking the court for a protective order to prevent staff members from being forced to give depositions.
Additionally, the city has subpoenaed several lawmakers, including Harkins, District 30 Sen. Dean Kirby, District 46 Sen. Philip Moran, District 3 Sen. Nickey Browning, District 44 Sen. John Polk, District 74 Rep. Mark Baker and former District 54 Rep. Alex Monsour, all Republicans.
Harkins, Kirby, Moran and Browning signed on as co-authors of the measure.
Harkins told the Sun he has agreed to turn over all e-mails related to the bill.
The second part of a series on the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.