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Council OKs talks on possible airport authority

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Daily Record File Photo A resolution approved Thursday clears the way for the City Manager and County Manager to hold talks, and for creation of an advisory group to determine what would be needed to create an airport authority.

The Roswell City Council voted 8-2 Thursday to approve a resolution “to evaluate and develop a framework to consider establishment of an airport authority.”

The language of the resolution spurred discussions lasting more than an hour.

What the resolution does is give City Manager Joe Neeb the council’s blessing to hold formal talks with County Manager Stan Riggs and to create a citizens’ advisory group to gather information about what would be needed to create an authority.

The plan is to report back to city council by February about the conclusions, including providing a draft of city code for establishing the authority if the government managers and committee consider that outcome feasible and desirable.

Asked numerous times by city councilors if the resolution meant that an authority would definitely be formed, Neeb repeatedly said that it did not.

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“I am in support of this, and the only reason I am is, because in big and all capital letters, and we all know what that means, it says ‘consider,’” said City Councilor Angela Moore, noting the council was not voting Thursday to create an authority, but only to acquire information.

The city has owned the airport and its related properties since 1967, after the closure of the Walker Air Force Base. Yet many believe that it could become a much more powerful economic force in the city.

Two consulting reports, one in 1998 and the other in 2017, recommended that a regional governing authority be established to take over ownership of the assets and manage them with the intent of boosting jobs and economic growth. According to the studies, an authority managed by someone dedicated to business development who coordinates with a governing board of people from the area would be better able to promote airfield growth and would be less likely to have to act at the behest of one political body.

In 2017, a task force of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. (EDC) — sanctioned by both the Roswell City Council and the Chaves County Board of Commissioners — began its efforts to get state legislation passed to create the authority. A bill passed both the New Mexico Senate and House of Representative in 2018, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez. The Regional Air Center Special Economic District Act that passed both bodies a year later was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February 2019.

Mayor Dennis Kintigh has said that he is not sure that an authority is the right solution, so rather than launch immediately into county and city talks in 2019, city staff instead developed a “separation” report that examined the many legal, financial, regulatory and logistical issues involved.

Three people associated with the EDC — former state Sen. Tim Jennings, former EDC chair Bud Kunkel and task force member and local businessman Kyle Armstrong — reiterated points during the Thursday City Council meeting they have made many times at previous public meetings about why they think an authority is key to bringing high-paying jobs and significant employers to the airfield.

“As a member of the task force, I had the opportunity to travel to Louisiana and Texas and to review some of these authorities that are already existing and to hear how they manage to make them work,” said Armstrong. “What I heard over and over again was two things. The structure is obviously critical and that is how we come to this point, but also community is so critical and important to making this work.”

He said the successful authorities pull in not only governments but also all sectors of their communities, including universities, community leaders and businesses.

“This resolution is an opportunity not just to consider the mechanics of how an authority might be formed, but also bring in new voices and expertise,” he said.

Several councilors questioned the need for a resolution, saying Neeb already has authority to work with the county manager on the issue. But opposition was expressed by councilors Jeanine Best and Jacob Roebuck.

Best’s concerns include that she doesn’t agree with the legislation that would require the city to turn over assets to the authority. Roebuck gave his own slide presentation about why he doesn’t think an authority makes sense, including that he doesn’t think it would be free of political influences. He advocated for a “mini-authority,” which would consist of a chief executive officer hired by the city that would head up the airfield and would work in conjunction with a community-business advisory board.

After all discussions were heard, most councilors agreed to approve the resolution.

The City Council also voted unanimously to approve three other resolutions having to do with the Roswell Air Center.

Resolution 20-06 introduced amended and new chapters to the city’s zoning code regarding airport hazards and obstacles. Resolution 20-07 reorganized, updated and greatly condensed Chapter 5 of the city code that deals with the Air Center, moving some sections out of the previous code and into other city documents.

Resolution 20-42 deals with Roswell Air Center fees, instituting new fees and updating others that city staff said had not been changed for decades.