Home News Local News County-city Air Center authority talks to begin soon

County-city Air Center authority talks to begin soon

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Lisa Dunlap Photo An airport authority might be a game-changer for the city, county and region, says Will Cavin, second from left, chair of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. Commissioner Jeff Bilberry is on the left and County Manager Stanton Riggs is at right.

It’s official — county and city leaders can start working to form an airport authority.

About 18 months after state legislators succeeded in getting legislation passed that provides a means for Roswell Air Center to be governed and managed by an independent airport authority, city and county leaders will now hold formal talks exploring forming such an entity.

The Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously, 5-0, Thursday morning for a resolution approving discussions among City Manager Joe Neeb, County Manager Stan Riggs, other city and county staff, and the members of a citizens’ group expected to be announced within a couple of weeks.

The Roswell City Council approved a similar resolution, 8-2, on July 9 after discussions lasting more than an hour.

“This is not going to be an easy task if we get to that point,” said Will Cavin, chair of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners. “But we have been given an opportunity by the state to try to do something to try to change up the formula for the industrial air center. So I think we have a lot of great minds that will be working on trying to put a plan together. And, if they get all the right information, I think this could be something that could be a game-changer for the city of Roswell, for Chaves County and for Southeast New Mexico.”

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In expressing his support for the resolution and an authority, Riggs said, “This will greatly enhance economic development in Chaves County.”

The final decision to form an authority would have to be voted on by the city, the county and any other governmental entities that might be involved.

Riggs noted that this effort has been supported by many in the area, including the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., an Air Center Task Force and state legislators from the area who pushed bills through the New Mexico Legislature in 2018 and 2019.

The Regional Air Center Special Economic District Act was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February 2019. A slightly different version had passed the Legislature in 2018, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

The legislation authorizes a new type of political subdivision to be formed that would see five to nine appointed members responsible for governing and managing the local airfield and its surrounding and related properties, often referred to now as the Roswell Air Center. Since 1967 and the closure of the Walker Air Force Base, the airport and its properties have been owned and managed by the city of Roswell. The authority would own the assets of the Air Center and be able to issue debt against those assets to improve the center.

Many times over the past decades, local leaders have talked about what could be done to boost business and job growth at the Roswell Air Center. It has many attractive features, such as long runaways designed to carry large and heavy aircraft, but also has some challenges, including older buildings, structures and infrastructure that need renovation or replacement.

“I remember some discussions when I was young back in, I believe, ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, when there was some discussion about an airport authority back when the military was pulling out,” said Commissioner Robert Corn. “And we are still talking about it and we still aren’t getting anywhere. It is time to move. I don’t think it has met its full potential. I think it needs different people looking at it from a different perspective, solely focused on the possibilities of the Air Center. I hope the discussion between the two managers bear fruit.”

He noted with some consternation that neither resolution passed by the city or county requires the authority to be formed.

“Sometimes I think we are back to square one instead of progressing,” he said. “I hope I am proven wrong. I hope this thing moves on and gets some focus and makes things happen.”

As demonstrated by how many years discussions about an authority have been occurring, many people don’t think economic development has much to do with its governing entity. That includes the head of the nonpartisan Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque, which has been studying the outcomes of former military base conversions.

“The challenge at the Roswell Air Center involves transitioning a massive, old Air Force Base to profit-making civilian uses in a slow-growing rural community in a state that suffers from long-term poverty and economic challenges,” said Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation. “Management of the facility by an authority or by the city of Roswell itself simply isn’t the primary challenge facing RAC.”

A separation report prepared by the city of Roswell’s Finance Department also outlined slew of issues involved in forming an authority. Those include getting regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and other state and federal agencies; sorting out water rights and water use issues; determining how the authority would pay for services now provided to the air center for free, such as fire, police and road and building maintenance; and coming up with a way for the Air Center to be financially self-sufficient, as it now requires about $1 million in funding each year from the city.

Cavin noted that both the county and city will have to provide financial support for an authority. Earlier in the commission meeting, county officials said that they have put Air Center improvement projects on their 2022-26 Infrastructure and Capital Improvements Plan. Those plans outline county priorities, but they are also required for projects seeking state funding.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.