JACKSON When Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, stepped to the lectern in the Mississippi Senate on March 3, he was steadfast in his goal to shift control of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority to forces outside the capital city, even if the City of Jackson owns the airport and the land it sits on.
Wearing a red floral tie, he stood to the side as each of the four Jackson senators offered amendment after amendment, and pled for the GOP-controlled Senate not to pass SB 2162 over two long, tense hours.
"This makes common sense and is about maximizing the effect because that is a major economic driver for our state," Harkins said during the discussion. "All I am trying to do is take a regional approach to it."
"You are doing it because you can do it," Sen. John Horhn responded, "not because it's the right thing or the just thing but because you can."
On March 7, Harkins continued his focus on improving the "business" makeup of the airport board. But Horhn brought the issue closer to what many Jacksonians believe the "takeover" attempt is really about: control of valuable land around the airport.
"If you are trying to attract development, this is not the way to do it," Horhn told Harkins and the Senate. "Because this action is going to force other actions in the judicial system and the executive branch at the federal level, and it's going to tie this airport up for the next few years, and nobody that is interested in doing development is going to consider seriously coming to the Jackson metropolitan area because we are down here fighting amongst ourselves."
Since the news broke in January that the Senate was about to wage a "hostile takeover" of Jackson's airport, many Jacksonians wonder if it's about more than who controls operations at the airport itself, but what happens on the land the city owns out there in the middle of Rankin County, including valuable shovel-ready land Entergy has already prepped for development.
Harkins addressed the suburbs' frustration over not being able to develop land around the airport, in an area rife with development, after the motion to reconsider failed on Monday. "At the end of the day, you look at the development in Flowood, the development in Pearl, the development in Brandon, how everything is just kind of growing," Harkins told the Jackson Free Press, "and there is the spot in the middle that has not done anything ever. Granted, the airport is kind of different, but to me it seems like in 50 years you would have more than just one UPS station."
Harkins, a commercial real-estate agent in Flowood, said including appointments from the Mississippi Development Authority as well as more representatives from Rankin County on the board, could reverse that dearth of development.
"That's kind of what my bill does is make sure that people who are on the board are business-oriented (and) have an understanding about the business dynamics of what the airport brings to the table," added Harkins, whose father and business partner, Gary Harkins, is the chairman of the Rankin County Republican Party and worked on Gov. Phil Bryant's campaign.
Jackson senators, though, are frustrated that the forces behind this bill don't want to work with capital-city representatives in a civil, collaborative way. One of Horhn's failed amendments was to establish a development council to bring everyone to the table.
"This is a terrible mistake for this Legislature," Sen. David Blount said, "and if this bill becomes law it is going to be fought ... and it is going to hold back the development in Rankin County and the improvements we would all like to see at the airport."
The Mississippi Airport Association even weighed in, warning that the make-up of the board Harkins wants in control would pose serious ethical issues—especially mixing a representative from the MDA with the adjutant general of the National Guard.
"[T]he statute may create a natural prejudice in favor of that airport for future economic or air service development projects, and a prejudice against the other airports in the state," the MAA letter stated. "... [T]hese appointments may create problematic relationships under Mississippi's ethics laws."
But those warnings fell on deaf ears.
Back to Flowood
Flowood may be a recent development, built largely in a floodplain on the other side of the Pearl River east of Jackson. It doesn't have a city square, and its city hall is in a strip of offices on the west side of Airport Road, staring straight out at JMAA property.
But its development has been on steroids, leading to a congested retail district about six miles east of Jackson, called Dogwood Festival, where many well-known big-box retailers, along with some locally owned businesses, line multiple strip malls, even as some of them back up to swathes of trees and empty chunks of property.
The key to the real success of Flowood, many believe, lies in the East Metro Parkway, a by-pass of sorts that goes south from Highway 25 (Old Fannin Road goes north) and stops abruptly two miles south, at least until the parkway is completed down to Highway 80, providing the perfect way to get customers in and out of Flowood without them ever needing to go on Lakeland Drive.
Currently, the parkway is a green paradise, lined with sidewalks and bike paths, but no development, south of the JC Penney and The Blake retirement complex. It passes through a 211-acre parcel of JMAA land, mostly to the west of it but some to the east—land that Entergy certified "shovel-ready" in 2014 but has sat vacant since. Recently, the JMAA has repeated released statements touting the property with its Entergy certification as ready to be leased.
City Council President Melvin Priester, Jr., says development of that land adjacent to the East Metro Parkway is behind the bill.
"This land has become increasingly more valuable with development opportunities," Priester said last week. "You give the governor, his team (and) the MDA the opportunity to cherry-pick their partners for deals that would be very lucrative."
Rankin First Executive Director Tom Troxler said in a phone interview that while the land seemed ready to go, his organization had not heard of any interested parties. However, he explained this was partly due to the fact that the land being adjacent to the airport was perfect for aeronautical companies, which are few and far between.
In fact, the Vision 2022 plan of the Greater Jackson Chamber (which includes Rankin County) touts the East Metro Parkway as a vital piece of its regional goals, including "to establish Jackson International Airport as the South's new location for the aerospace industry thanks to new opportunities presented by the opening of the East Metro Parkway."
At the capitol, Harkins insisted he has no conflict of interest. "I don't have personal gain out of any of this," Harkins said. "I don't own any real estate out there. I don't have Boeing in my hip pocket that I am going to bring out."
Harkins was emphatic that the bill is not designed to give Rankin County a way to benefit from the transfer or control of land or from the change in the board, denying any suggestion of a Rankin County land grab.
The full Mississippi Senate got its last chance to change its mind on the Jackson airport "takeover" bill today (March 7) at 4 p.m., as allegations swirl that the effort is more about controlling valuable land around the airport than improving operations of the airport.
"There is not some avenue where Rankin County stands to benefit," Harkins told the Jackson Free Press "The only way Rankin County can benefit, in my mind, is if there are companies that locate out there."
The way to ensure that happens, he insists, is with a more "regional" approach and more businesspeople on the airport board.
'I've Got Nothing to Hide'
On March 8, the Jackson Free Press received a photo of a Josh Harkins real-estate sign on overgrown property right across the street from JMAA land, at the corner of Lakeland and Airport Road.
Presumably, that property, which is valued at $427,960, could benefit from increased development north of the airport and lining Lakeland Drive.
Harkins said Bryant and Deborah Waguespack of Brandon own the land. "I listed it for them several months ago," Harkins said. "It is still on the market now."
He said the notion that he would have an interest in the land around the airport is "preposterous," adding that he has "nothing to hide." He lists and owns a variety of property in the area, he said. "The offices that we have been building since 1980 are on Lakeland Drive up by the Pearl River. I have listed property along Lakeland Drive from out at Luckney Road and Lakeland where Liberty Baptist Church is."
"I own property that is a little further east of that on Lakeland Drive that's right by the Dogwood subdivision. I've got two and a half acres that I personally own there. Which would be on the east side of Dogwood, which is in-between Dogwood and that Walmart, which is further out east from the airport than Dogwood." His real-estate interests were not behind the airport bill, he said. "I've got nothing to hide," he said. " ... I do not have a single company, or entity, or individual that's ever asked me about doing a development out at the airport."
Email Tim Summers Jr. at [email protected] Read more at jfp.ms/airport. Additional reporting by Arielle Dreher.