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Air center authority legislation given its wings; Commissioners plan letter to governor to encourage signing

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More than 19 years after the concept was first proposed, local business and government leaders have won the passage of legislation authorizing the creation of a Roswell air center authority.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell

As key figures exchanged comments, calls and emails expressing gratitude and praise, some also said they are preparing for the hard work to begin if Gov. Susana Martinez signs the bill into law as expected.

“Every indication is that they (the governor’s office) have looked at this favorably,” said Jon Hitchcock, a retired banking executive and one of the nine members of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force. “We are again hopeful that she will see the benefit of signing this.”

The New Mexico Senate voted 36-3 Wednesday afternoon to approve the enacting legislation, the Regional Air Center Special Economic District Act. The House provided its concurrence vote to accept Senate amendments Wednesday night, two changes designed to clarify tax issues and to make the legislation applicable to other former U.S. military airfields in the state. An earlier version of HB 197 had passed the House 64 to 3 on Feb. 8.

The legislation creates an independent, regional authority to govern the Roswell International Airport and some of the land and buildings outside the airfield fence.

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To be run only by non-elected officials from Roswell, Chaves County and surrounding counties, the authority would take over ownership of the airfield district assets, which have been owned by the city of Roswell since the military closed the air base in 1967.

The authority would be able to hire staff to market and manage the air center, to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings, to obtain loans and grants, and to issue revenue bonds repaid by rents and fees collected on district property.

Members of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners will be among those who let Martinez know of their support for what is envisioned as a significant job creation and economic growth initiative for the region to build on the existing businesses and university programs focused on aviation and located near the airfield.

Chair Robert Corn said during the commission’s Thursday meeting that he was asking for a letter to be sent to Martinez to encourage her to sign the bill. He also recommended including the unanimously approved resolution passed in December that showed the county’s support for the authority concept.

“I think it makes a bigger impression if we all sign it,” he said. “It has some great opportunities not only for the citizens of Chaves County but it has regional implications also.”

He and Commissioner Will Cavin, as well as Tim Jennings, a task force member and a former state representative interviewed after the Senate passage of the bill, said the real work will begin if the legislation is signed.

“I am telling you that the work on this thing is just now going to get started,” said Corn. “There are lots of cobwebs and hurdles and stops that are going to have to be crossed on this deal before we really roll our sleeves up and get to work.”

Cavin added, “This is the first hurdle on creating this authority. There is a spider web out there that’s going to have to be really cleaned up. There are a lot of leases, water issues and this and that, that have precipitated this authority over the last 40, 50 years since the base closed. … So there is going to be a lot of work going forward, and I look forward to making that happen for Chaves County and the city of Roswell.”

The county owns land and roads that surround the airfield.

Similar to the county, the Roswell City Council passed a resolution in December approving that the task force and the staff with the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. seek the legislation to create the authority.

The House bill was carried by Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) and was co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Greg Nibert and Bob Wooley of Roswell and James Townsend of Artesia. A similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 180, was carried by Sens. Stuart Ingle (R-Portales) and Cliff Pirtle (R-Roswell), but it was the House bill that was acted on by the full legislature.

Ezzell said that she has personally talked to Gov. Martinez about the economic impact the authority is expected to have on the region.

“The last I heard she is still on board with this so I am thrilled to death about that,” she said. “We have now the opportunity to go back to where we were and to make Roswell the showcase of southeastern New Mexico. Because you know as well I do that if there are more jobs, good paying jobs, that it not only benefits Chaves County, it benefits surrounding communities as well. It helps our school district. It helps our tax base. The list goes on and on and on.”

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.