TUPELO –The City Council tonight unanimously approved acceptance of a $1.85 million federal grant for the Tupelo Regional Airport that the council had rejected last week.
The action came after a special meeting with airport officials, which included questions and expressions of concern about airport operations from council members. The council had until midnight to accept the Federal Aviation Administration grant or it would have been lost.
The city must put up $48,854, or 2.5 percent matching money, to secure the grant. Last week the council had voted 5-2 against accepting the grant, citing what some members termed a lack of communication from the airport.
Live updates from today’s meeting:
Josh Abramson, the Tupelo Regional Airport executive director, said the lease requires the airport to provide a safe working environment in return for UAM’s 20-year commitment to operate its business on airport property.
Abramson doesn’t have a copy of the lease, nor does anybody else at the meeting.
BACKGROUND ON THE MEETING: City and airport officials, who remain at odds over the airport’s management style and renovation plans, are meeting because the council rejected the federal grant.
In their rejection, council members said they felt pressured to rush into a decision and raised questions about the airport’s policies and management style.
The grant, which requires a 2.5 percent municipal match, would fund security system improvements, taxiway rehabilitation, concrete apron expansions and a new air-conditioning system.
Although some of those repairs would directly benefit the airport, others would improve facilities used by a private company – Universal Asset Management – that leases some of the airport’s property.
If the council still refuses to approve the grant, it will be responsible for some of those improvements itself.
The deadline for approval is midnight tonight.
Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell questions the lease between UAM and the city/airport.
Newell: “When we met back here at executive session (to approve the UAM lease) David Rumbarger (of the Community Development Foundation) came and talked to us for about 15 minutes about this great company that we need to take hold of and this is a lifetime opportunity for this and all the advantages … but he never told us what was involved in this contract and what we were getting involved in.”
Airport Authority Member Rocky Miskelly: “Did you question him at that time?
Newell: “Yes, we did.”
Miskelly: And did he answer them properly? It seems to me your questions are three years old.
John Hill says he has reviewed the lease between UAM and Tupelo Regional Airport “from A to Z” and it doesn’t commit the city or the airport to any specific projects of any specific dollar amount. But there “is a commitment that we will continue to upgrade the facilities and keep the facilities in good condition.”
Newell and Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis say that’s normal lease language and doesn’t necessary commit Tupelo or the airport to accepting this grant and performing the work outlined in the grant.
Abramson said “this is not a UAM grant. The Appalachian Regional Commission grant is a UAM grant, and you’ve already committed the funds to pay for that. This is a grant for Tupelo Regional Airport. One of the byproducts of having tenants is that when you do improvements at the airport, those tenants will benefit.”
Abramson said roughly 10 tenants currently using airport property will benefit from the improvements outlined in the $1.85 million federal grant in question today.
“The area UAM occupies is only 60 percent of the facility. We still have 13,000 square feet we need to occupy with another tenant so we can start breaking even with this deal,” Abramson said, referring to the city’s acquisition of the old National Guard building on which the airport still owes money.
Universal Asset Management (UAM) also made a commitment when it agreed to locate its operations here, according to Abramson: “Three years to get to 100 jobs, as well as a $4.6 million payroll. We’re in the mid 60s (employees at UAM) right now.”
The main problem is communication, said airport authority member Ty Robinson.
“We haven’t ‘been talking to y’all at all, and I apologize for that. We’re talking about an update every other week to let you know what’s going on at the airport. Josh (Abramson) printed out a roster of all airport members, phone numbers, email addresses. We’re here to help the city.
Said Councilman Jonny Davis: “I think everybody has reached the point where all this gets cleared up. The whole thing is about sunshine and clarity. There’s too much confusion, too many figures … . When you’re handed a document on Thursday and told that we’re going to need to vote on (the $1.85 million grant) on Tuesday, it was the first time we were told of any of that.”
Davis added: “It’s not the project, it’s not UAM, it’s an overall longstanding misunderstanding of previous council problems, this council … of not having any idea of what’ is going on with the airport.
Abramson said that if the city doesn’t approve the grant, the money will go to another airport in the South. The airport could get another Federal Aviation Administration grant next year for $1 million, but there is no guarantee since the federal government has to budget those funds.
“The authority’s thought is that since we’re going to do this work and we have the appropriated funds and we have until midnight (to accept those funds), we need to strike when we know the funding will be available to us,” said Miskelly.
Councilmen Jonny Davis and Mike Bryan said they understand but felt like they were forced by the airport last week to accept that grant.
“We have no desire to put a gun to your head,” Miskelly responded.
Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan, in whose ward the airport is located, said he supports progress but thinks the airport is asking the city for too much money.
“With y’all working in the red and asking for that much money … we need to sit down and discuss what is the fate of our airport?”
Bryan also said he gets calls all the time from constituents complaining about how many planes UAM brings in.
Finally, he said, “Josh (Abramson) called me Monday before the vote and asked if I had any questions, and I said, ‘Not at this time,’ and I had a boat load. But it was the Monday before the vote, I was driving and talking on my cell phone, and it just wasn’t the right time.”
Miskelly: “Without a successful airport in this city, we don’t make the short list on so many companies’ economic development plans. Toyota, we would have never made the short list … we all know the airport has value, we all know it has a capital need.”
He also said it’s not just an airport, it’s an airport industrial park and he “sees dollars and jobs when I drive by.”
Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings said he’s glad airport and city officials met today and looks forward to the two entities working together more successfully in the future.
Newell complains about UAM and the number of aircraft it brings in.
“It impacts our decision when we get negative comments from the community. I represent 5,000-6,000 people, and there are many that aren’t happy with what’s going on out there. It’s very relevant. If the public is unhappy with our new neighbor and we’re asked to give however much money it may be … it’s an image problem.”
Responded Miskelly: “The beautiful thing about this vote tonight is it’s not a vote on” UAM.
Tupelo Regional Airport Authority member Fred Cook read a letter from fellow member Glenn McCullough, who could not attend. McCullough asked the council to approve the grant, calling it “the right thing to do for the city of Tupelo.”
The City Council votes on the grant. It passes UNANIMOUSLY.
Said Newell while voting, “We have to support our airport. We’ve got some issues that we have to work on. We’re pretty much boxed in at this point and we’ve got to support it.