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Leaders give thumbs up to air authority concept; Commissioners told regional authority will help job growth

“This is a means to a new approach,” says Tim Jennings about the efforts to create an independent regional air authority to govern and manage the Roswell International Air Center. Chaves County Commissioners voted Thursday to give their formal support to the concept, which will require an act of the state Legislature. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Chaves County elected leaders have affirmed their support for plans to develop a regional air authority to govern the city-owned Roswell International Air Center as business and government leaders strive to boost jobs and revenues generated at the former military air base.

“This is a means to a new approach,” said Tim Jennings, a former state senator, “to get infrastructure around the air base so we can develop the air base the way it should be.”

Jennings is one of nine members of the RIAC Task Force, created by the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. to implement the recommendations of a 2017 economic feasibility study.

The formation of an independent regional air authority was chief among the study conclusions on what is needed to market and develop the 4,000-acre air field and surrounding land and facilities as an industrial and commercial enterprise. A 1998 study also recommended an independent governing entity.

Jennings addressed the Chaves County Board of Commissioners during the group’s regular monthly meeting Thursday morning. The commissioners voted unanimously, with James Duffey absent, to express their support for the concept of an air authority, which will require an act of the New Mexico Legislature to establish.

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The Roswell City Council previously authorized the task force to move forward with negotiations on the air authority at its Dec. 14 meeting. The city has owned the air field, land and buildings at the air center since the U.S. Army closed the Walker Air Base in 1967.

Jennings talked about the profound effect the base closure had on Roswell. He said said the city’s population fell from 60,000 to 30,000 within a few years and the city of Roswell was left with a large airfield and with numerous facilities that it did not have the financial means to maintain well on its own.

“We are going to model this on the basis of our Roswell regional airport transportation group,” said Jennings. “We think if we approach things as a regional area and get jobs into the region, whether it be Artesia or in Ruidoso or anything we can do. We think we have a lot better opportunities in working together.”

Jennings as well as other task force members said many other advantages exist in having the air center under the control of an independent regional body.

They said it will reassure potential investors that decisions won’t be based on changing, local political priorities; that the air authority will be able to hire experienced airfield marketing and leasing experts; and that a regional body would be in a better position to obtain federal grants. At some point down the road, an air authority also could issue bonds to pay for building and infrastructure improvements.

While the county does not own or manage the air center now, task force member Jon Hitchcock noted that it does own much of the land surrounding the air field and is integral to economic development in the region. He also said the formal support of county elected officials would be helpful in obtaining support from legislators.

“This is the biggest job opportunity I have seen probably in my adult life,” said Commission Chair Robert Corn, “so I am pleased you are bringing it to us to approve and hopefully it will yield great benefits.”

Task force members are working now to have the air authority issue added to Gov. Susana Martinez’s call to legislators. They are due to convene Jan. 16 for the 2018 regular session.

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.