More than $600,000 has been spent so far on a $1.2 million county airport study the Madison County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA) commissioned a year ago with County Engineer Rudy Warnock, according to documents obtained by the Madison County Journal.
Among other things, $96,000 was spent between April 5 and June 5 to study a previous analysis commissioned by the Board of Supervisors prior to 2002.
According to invoices from Warnock & Associates, the money was for “Specifically work related to the project for the last two months involved detailed review and analysis of aviation demand and forecast, evaluation of airport minimum requirements and classification analysis, as well as an in depth analysis of the May 2002 reporting to the (Board of Supervisors).”
The same language appears on invoices from Aug. 3-Sept. 6 in the amount of $120,000, and Sept. 7-Oct. 4 in the amount of $60,000.
Other invoices for $84,000, $60,000, $36,0000 and $60,000 were for analysis of eight sites, “specifically relating to proximity of utilities, access, transportation requirements, land cost, site development costs and tower relocation costs.”
A ninth site has since been added to the list.
The no-bid contract was approved unanimously by the MCEDA board at a special meeting on March 25, 2013, documents show.
A member of the MCED board, Calvin Harris, is an employee of Warnock & Associates, the firm with which MCEDA contracted and where the county engineer is a principal.
Harris denies voting for the project and said there is a mistake in the minutes.
“I definitely recused myself,” he said. “That was my understanding before I even got on the board six to seven years ago. I’ve never voted to accept a contract for Rudy. I did not vote to accept the contract. That’s a mistake.”
MCEDA last month had first denied access to its minutes and would neither confirm nor deny that the airport study, dubbed Project Phoenix, existed.
In the March 25, 2013, minutes made available to the Journal on Feb. 27, the project is vaguely worded as “contract” and was entered in the minutes with little detail. The project was also discussed in executive session under the guise of possible land sales.
The only direct mention of an airport study in MCEDA’s minutes was on Feb. 14, 2013, when the board voted to approach Warnock & Associates about the work. It, too, was discussed in executive session under the guise of potential land sales.
The minutes read, “Mr. (Jack) Harrington made a motion to engage Warnock and Associates to develop a proposal and proposed contract for feasibility and site selection study to include terms, scheduling, and pricing for proposed Madison County Airport. After a second by Mr. (Baxter) Strain and a recusal from Mr. (Calvin) Harris, the motion was approved.”
MCEDA Executive Director Tim Coursey released a statement on Feb. 27 following a series of articles that appeared in the Journal questioning another airport study.
For the past 32 years, county officials have spent money looking into the feasibility of a new airport.
“It’s been well-documented that the need for a new airport, from an economic development, growth and safety perspective, has existed in Madison County now for over 30 years,” he said. “Around 1983 and again around 2002, many well-intentioned elected officials and volunteers worked hard to establish a new airport in Madison County with the highest hopes and expectations.
“Both times, discussions were held openly and the potential sites were identified and presented for all to see,” he continued. “The chaos, misinformation and distractions from self-serving interests and land speculators that followed the discussion must have come as a surprise. Ultimately, both efforts failed to result in a new airport being constructed, however the need for a new airport has never changed.”
Coursey said the clock is ticking and the county is running out of options. He said the venture was known by MCEDA and by the Madison County Board of Supervisors.
There has been no vote made by supervisors to move forward with an airport study.
“I think it is also most important for all to know that MCEDA would only move forward on a project of this magnitude after we have discussed it with the board of supervisors,” he said. “In this case, each and every volunteer MCEDA member, along with each and every elected member of the board of supervisors, have been engaged in discussions concerning the county’s need for an new airport – well before the project was formally initiated and well after the kickoff date of the project.”
He added, “There have been disagreements about how we move forward during this time, no doubt, but there has always been an overwhelming consensus that we carry through with the vision of creating a new airport.”
District 3 Supervisor Gerald Steen last week in an open meeting asked Coursey to hand over the contract and board minutes related to Project Phoenix to County Administrator Mark Houston.
In 1982, MCEDA first began studying possible locations for a new airport. The talks began with the city of Madison, home to Bruce Campbell Field, because they would have to sign on to close or relocate that airport.
By the mid-1990s, the county and the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District believed they found a promising site in Gluckstadt. Opposition from residents killed that plan in October 1997.
In 2001, a site south of Canton along Cotton Blossom Road was proposed, but it was later dropped and a new site along Mississippi 16 and Interstate 55 was discussed.
Plans for an airport fizzled in the mid-2000s.