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County reaffirms support for regional air authority

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The conclusions of two feasibility studies recommending an air authority body to govern and manage the Roswell International Air Center “continue to hold true,” says Jon Hitchcock, a member of the RIAC Task Force. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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With three months to go before the New Mexico Legislature convenes, the Chaves County Board of Commissioners has voted to reaffirm its support for the formation of a regional air authority, which would require enabling state legislation.

Jon Hitchcock, a member of the Roswell International Air Center Task Force and one of the people instrumental in negotiations to bring American Airlines flights to the Roswell airport years ago, appeared before commissioners during their Thursday morning meeting to talk about the renewed effort to seek a bill that would create a separate governing authority for the airport, which is now overseen by the City of Roswell.

“As you pointed out in 1998 and 2017, the city expended considerable resources (on feasibility studies) that ended up in a recommendation for the formation of a separate authority, and those reasons continue to hold true,” said Hitchcock. “Our biggest problem is the lack of experienced business people that can promptly respond to new economic opportunities that present themselves.”

The idea is that an authority made up of representatives chosen by city, county and other governmental bodies in the area would be more capable of responding quickly to business and market needs given the members’ expertise and more narrow scope of concerns.

In fall 2017, a similar legislative push began by local leaders. It was supported by both the commission and the Roswell City Council and resulted in legislation that passed the House and the Senate in 2018. But unexpectedly the bill was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

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She leaves office in January, having completed two terms, and local leaders think that the next governor will sign a bill, given candidates’ public statements to that effect.

“If we get it through the legislature again, and I think we will, I am pretty sure that the next governor will sign it, whether it is Gov. (Steve) Pearce or Gov. (Michelle Lujan) Grisham,” said Commissioner Will Cavin.

John Mulcahy, president of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., said that the bill to be presented to legislators will have many similarities with the 2018 bill but with some significant differences.

“It is basically the same with some additional pieces involving bonding language,” he said, explaining that a lawyer from an Albuquerque firm has rewritten the sections dealing with bonds and also reviewed some of the provisions objected to by Gov. Martinez.

Hitchcock said that two misconceptions about the legislation existed.

“First is that the act that we are trying to present or re-present to the legislature would require removal of the airport to the authority. That is not the case. We are trying to create a mechanism by which not only the City of Roswell but other communities could transfer their airport to an authority to promote economic development. So it is totally up to the city as to the timing and if — once the authority is created by the legislature or the mechanism is created — to move ahead.”

Roswell City Councilor and task force member Steve Henderson added, “We are a long way from knowing exactly how we can do this or if we can do it, but we need this legislation in order to have the authority to do it.”

The second misconception Hitchcock discussed involved questions that Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh raised publicly about whether the air center could survive financially on its own if separated from the city. Hitchock said it was “premature” to raise that question when the city has yet to release a full financial assessment.

At a City of Roswell Airport Advisory Commission meeting later Thursday, City Manager Joe Neeb discussed the in-progress financial report regarding the co-related airport and city finances. The report is expected to be released by the end of the month. But as part of his comments to advisory commission members, he said that initial figures indicate that the value of services provided to the airport for such activities as human resources, budgeting, engineering and maintenance has amounted to at least $346,000 more each year since 2013 than has been reimbursed to the city by airport revenues.

However, he and others also have indicated that there could be ways to increase airport revenues, including by increasing rental rates and sale prices for buildings and land.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.