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Independent air authority in line for takeoff

The Roswell International Air Center Task Force wants the New Mexico Legislature to enact a statute authorizing a special economic and development district to operate the air center. (Tim Howsare Photo)

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A city committee has given initial approval to efforts to create an independent air center authority.

The effort, which will require an act of the New Mexico Legislature, is meant to attract more businesses and create more jobs at the Roswell International Air Center, owned by the city since the military closed Walker Air Base in 1967.

“To me, it is absolutely essential that we get this done as soon as possible,” said local real estate appraiser and Roswell International Air Center Task Force member Bud Kunkel. “This is a facility that, if we can figure out how to take advantage of it, will be a huge economic asset not only for the city but for the region.”

By turning operations over to an independent regional authority, RIAC would be able to operate more efficiently as a business park and could issue bonds to pay for building repairs and construction without overburdening the city general fund, according to local officials and the findings of two studies in 1998 and 2017.

On Monday the Roswell City Council Legal Committee unanimously approved a resolution that would give the task force and city officials permission to negotiate with potential regional partners and with the state to establish a special economic and industrial development district.

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“The whole thing is that we have one person that is paid by the city who is running the air center, and that is not what we need,” said Jeanine Corn Best, who said no committee members voiced opposition to the resolution. “We need an abundance of minds that work together to bring in new ideas. … Roswell is a business and it needs to make money, and something like this can bring in a lot of money but we have to connect with new blood and this would bring in new blood.”

The full City Council now will vote on the issue, with that meeting scheduled for Dec. 14. Other public meetings also would occur before an air authority could be established.

Kunkel said task force members and the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. staff will move quickly to get state legislators to consider the issue.

“Can we get the enacting legislation by 2018?” he asked. “Likely not, but we can start getting the issue in front of them during the upcoming legislative session.”

Kunkel estimated that legislation to create the special district is probably a couple of years away.

According to documents provided to the Legal Committee, some members of the RIAC Task Force have visited other air centers around the country, discovering that most operate under independent governing authorities.

The documents cited at length the experiences of England Air Park near Alexandria, Louisiana, a former Air Force base before its closure in 1992.

From 1992 to 2007, the park earned $7.13 billion from investment and operation revenues, contributed $1.7 billion in household earnings and was supporting 7,437 permanent and temporary jobs, the city documents indicated.

Alexandria is about the same size as Roswell, although located in a populated region. According to the city documents, the multijurisdictional regional authority helps the air park attract funding from various state and federal sources, as well as from private investors.

Kunkel said the Roswell area is different from Alexandria but that the local air center, which currently operates at a deficit, has advantages as well, including more than 4,000 acres of land and facilities, mild weather and dry climate, and a large runway sturdy enough for landing aircraft the size of the space shuttle.

“Nobody has an air center like this, nobody,” he said.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.