We all remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The damage that hurricane inflicted wiped out coastal airports and impeded access for those most in need to get supplies, food and water. As a result, our airport, the Waynesboro Municipal Airport and small aircraft served as primary access for relief efforts heading south to the coastal communities. The value of these aircraft, also called general aviation, was highlighted by that disaster, and since then the community has looked at the airport in a whole new way.
The truth is across our state and our country, airports like ours are critical to supporting emergency services, law enforcement, agriculture and business activity. As the executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development District, I see firsthand how integral our airport is to our infrastructure and local economy.
And that is not all. Agriculture is Mississippi’s number one industry, and forestry is the second largest component of Mississippi’s agricultural industry, following poultry/eggs. Wayne County is 71 percent forest covered, and the timber industry contributes over $200 million annually to our economy. General aviation and the Waynesboro Municipal Airport play an important role in connecting the timber industry to clients and buyers for wholesale distribution. These facilities are often far from major roads and in areas that are difficult to reach by car. Not only does our airport help to facilitate these business operations, but it also plays an important role in protecting the timber industry from harmful pests, and specifically the Southern Pine Beetle, an invasive bug that can aggressively spread from tree to tree, devastating forests.
Aside from supporting the timber industry, our airport is also a recruitment tool that attracts new investors. I’ve drawn potential investors from Memphis, Richmond, and Atlanta to our county who are interested in opening a business or expanding their operations into our community. For these investors, time is money and the ability to fly into our town, make a decision, and fly out, all in less than a day, is a significant draw for them. Additionally, for investors who have operations in multiple cities, across multiple states, access to an airport allows them to fly directly from one city to ours, allowing them to easily travel between both locations and stay connected to both operations.
Local airports are an important part of the infrastructure for towns across our state. There are 65 public-use general aviation airports throughout Mississippi, and each one of them plays an important role in supporting their communities. However, over the past few years, some have been pushing a proposal to separate our air traffic control (ATC) system from public oversight and hand it over to a private board that is largely controlled by the airlines themselves. This board would make decisions about where to invest, how resources are allocated, and where new technology is implemented. I am deeply concerned that this private board would shift resources away from communities like ours in favor of the biggest cities where their most profitable routes are.
I recently had the privilege of meeting with Sen. Roger Wicker to personally thank him for his leadership in passing a much-needed long-term FAA authorization bill which would support ongoing funding of the aviation system and did not include this harmful proposal. In addition, I thank Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Rep. Trent Kelly, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Rep. Gregg Harper and Rep. Steven Palazzo for their support of the bill.
Our network of large and small airports and the aircraft the depend on them are a lifeline to our local communities and a crucial part of our economy. I thank our elected officials for their leadership on this issue and call upon others to recognize this important part of our infrastructure.
Joseph Sean Dunlap has been the executive director for the Wayne County Mississippi Economic Development District for nine years.