JACKSON When Carl Newman is done, it will be difficult to recognize the Jackson Municipal Airport.
The airport's chief executive officer, during an interview at the airport on March 24 just as the Mississippi House was passing its controversial "takeover" bill of the facility, outlined a five-year plan that centered on several development and growth priorities.
One of the more significant to the rest of the area, and its recent rapid expansion, is the East Metro Corridor to connect Lakeland Drive to Old Brandon Road in the next year. "The land we have around the airport is a strength," Newman told the Jackson Free Press. "The roadway system for the most part is something that is a strength."
About the East Metro Parkway
Over the last few years, the Jackson airport has played a critical role in a commission, along with the mayors of Brandon, Pearl and Flowood, that guided and funded the construction of the East Metro Parkway, which currently stops before it reaches Old Brandon Road. The airport owns and plans to lease the land that sits adjacent to the road. In the past, they have not been able to develop much of the airport land, Newman said, because there was no way to access it.
Sen. Josh Harkins owns and lists land near the Jackson Airport. He says it's not a conflict of interest, though.
"You will hear people talking about (how) the airport has all of this land and hasn't developed it. What they don't say and what we have been standing up and saying recently is, well, until the road went in, in 2013 for part of it, you know you couldn't get to it, and you can't get to the part down here until the road gets to it."
The Jackson Municipal Airport Authority owns land east of the facility that is sitting and waiting for development. "We have worked with the folks at Entergy to qualify 211 acres, you know, this land that is open right now," Newman said. "We are working with them, right now, to get the rest of the land qualified, so that we know that they will provide electrical service to it when we have someone want to come in and develop it."
Another impediment to development, Newman hinted, had to do with difficulty some levels of government had collaborating on any potential deals.
"I personally reached out to folks that I think might have an interest in being here," Newman said. "Let me just tell you, one of the things that I hear from folks when we talk about this ... is a pretty large aircraft manufacturer and service firm. And what they have said to me is, one of the things that we really look at is the access, that the weather will be conducive to our operations."
"But the very first thing they ask, that comes out of their mouth, is 'are all of the entities on board?' So, is the local government on board, is the state on board, are the economic development folks on board, and do they get along?"
"And if the answer to that question is, no, then they strike your name off the list," the CEO added.
Newman said such dissension hurts chances for development interest. "Now that was that firm, but I have to think that others think similarly," he said.
If the leaders of the surrounding towns and the airport head seem to agree on the direction of development, then where is the problem that Newman mentions coming from?
It brings to mind something that Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Rankin, author of the "takeover" bill, said when discussing possible conflicts of interest he might have during an interview earlier this month.
"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."
Hotel Plans, Rental Car Consolidation
To indicate where his next five-year priority would be placed, Newman traced his finger over the location of the current Federal Aviation Administration building, indicating a patch of land to the west of the current entrance to the airport.
"And so one of our major priorities is to work to get a hotel on the airport. A hotel with some meeting room space, and we can also try to get some ancillary service facilities around that, like a service station," he said. "A lot of work needs to be done before that's ready to go." He then listed feasibility studies and collaboration with hotel-industry representatives to determine what amenities the airport could add to make its facilities compete with others in the area.
Another goal for the expansion of the airport facilities involves consolidating the rental car cleaning and business offices currently located on the east side of the airport with the bottom floor of a new parking garage structure.
"We want to build a consolidated rental car facility on this site," Newman said, adding that it would provide a covered rental car site, addressing a common customer complaint.
"We have already had conversations with rental-car firms about this concept. They get it. It's always going to be about the dollars, but they get it so we want to make sure that it is affordable for them. They get that," Newman said.
Along with the integration of the rental-car facilities into the parking garage, Newman plans an eventual expansion of the airport to include a brand-new concourse, although he was candid that it was a project that would get consideration on down the line, most likely toward the end of the five-year projection.
Return of a Low-Cost Carrier
Only a quarter of an hour after the House passed the airport "takeover" bill, Newman poked holes in one of the biggest complains proponents of Senate Bill 2162 espoused throughout the process to justify the legislative "takeover" of control of the airport commission: the lack of low-cost carriers at the airport.
"There is one airline that we continually talk to about providing service, but we haven't been able to land them yet. But we stay in contact with an airline that could provide service to Orlando, direct service to Orlando. And if that service is successful, we'd be then looking to expand service to Las Vegas," Newman said, laughing.
"And if you search a little bit, you will probably find out who it was, and this will be a low-cost carrier."
A search for "low-cost carrier" and the two locations brings up only two results: Allegiant and Southwest, which pulled out of Jackson in June 2014.
As for why Southwest left and will not come back for some time, Newman said its departure was the result of a company-wide restructuring and refocus. Southwest's own consolidation of smaller commuter flights into larger airports as well as entrance into more international flight markets was part of a national trend, and Newman said that Jackson was a part of that.
"The short answer to the question is that it is going to be a while before Southwest Airlines comes back," Newman said, possibly narrowing the field of possible carriers to Allegiant, a company known for its affordable and diversified routes. The company did not return phone calls, however, for confirmation, so that is pure speculation at this point.
Crucial to the low-carrier process is feedback from the community, including destinations that those in the area would like to travel and how often they would like to go there.
Although the airport hired a firm to help gather more of this information, they are launching a six-question survey on their website on April 2.
"And I think that when we have that information, that will give us a good idea of what we need to do, and we can begin then to pull the numbers together for the airlines about those locations, and the other thing (the firm) is doing is developing an incentive program package for a new service," Newman said.
Republican lawmakers from outside the capital city announced in January a plan to take control of the Jackson airport.
"And when we have that we are going to go out and hit it hard and sell it."
This has been a point of contention from supporters of the bill to "takeover" the airport, including its author, Harkins, who stated in early February in an interview with the Jackson Free Press that Southwest leaving was central to his motivation for the legislation.
"I've been in (office) four years," Harkins said in early February, "and I have seen Southwest leave, and I haven't seen anybody from the airport up at the Legislature asking for help attracting another low-cost carrier. The fact that airline tickets are so high, it got me looking into it."
However, as the bill from the Legislature hangs in uncertain territory before the governor's pen, it is important to mention that Newman closed by stating that without the support of the current JMAA board, his changes and plans might not be possible. So it is possible that with the board goes the future of the airport.
Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at [email protected] See more airport coverage at jfp.ms/airport.