Following the money

Hank Hayes • Feb 27, 2017 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE – Patrick Wilson is still trying to herd money.

Wilson, Tri-Cities Airport’s executive director, continues an attempt to put together a $20 million bundle to pay for site development for the airport’s Aerospace Park aviation-related economic development project.

Aerospace Park on the southside airfield has 160 available acres — but only 21 state-certified acres ready to be built on now with an extra $5 million on the price tag to grade the remaining land.

Wilson previously noted there’s about a 5-10 year window to attract aircraft production/completion projects, in addition to so-called “maintenance, repair and overhaul” companies.

He’s seeking the grading cash from a number of sources: Grants from the Tennessee Valley Authority and Federal Aviation Administration; state government; allocations from the airport’s former owners, namely Northeast Tennessee city and county governments; and new debt that could be issued by the airport.

Legislation has been filed that would allow the Tri-Cities Airport Authority to issue new bonds and authorize the participating governments to pledge “their full faith and credit and unlimited taxing power” as guarantors to the bond payments.

“We don’t see any issues with that legislation,” Wilson told Airport Authority commissioners at their meeting last Thursday.

Airport legal counsel Bill Bovender has pointed out in a memo to Wilson that the airport does not have a credit rating even though, as a regional airport authority, it is authorized to issue bonds.

Airport Authority Chairman Jon Smith encouraged commissioners to keep talking up the Aerospace Park project.

“Anytime you go see someone you know, if there’s a mayor in the room, make sure we tell them just how important this is and how important it is to the airport,” Smith said. “This is a game changer for us. We’re all the advocates. I appreciate any effort you could make.”

Wilson, over the last few months, has been doing a road show with mayors, city managers and local elected officials to get and keep the project on their radar.

“Those meetings have been very productive,” Wilson noted. “We’re putting a pro forma together to see what that financing would look like, and the cities and counties are working that into their budget processes.”

Airport Authority Commissioner Richard Venable, Sullivan County mayor, pointed out Wilson has done a great job selling the project to county commissioners during a time when they acted on a $140 million school capital expansion plan.

“I will admit there is a little bit of fatigue on the part of the county commission after passing $140 million … (but) timing is good … they are very aware this is part of a broader economic development (plan),” Venable explained.

Wilson advised Airport Authority commissioners in 2015 that state lawmakers passed legislation to phase in a cap on aviation fuel taxes, and he noted that move is costing TCRA $1.5 million in state aviation grants annually.

The aviation fuel tax cap — written exclusively for Memphis-based FedEx — was projected to help the company save more than $60 million through July 2018.

A state task force organized in the aftermath of the aviation fuel tax cap made five recommendations to remedy the situation. One solution called for creating a special economic development fund for airport projects.

“There was nothing significant that came out of that as options to replace that (grant revenue),” Wilson noted last year. “At this point, there is not a plan as to how to replace that loss. It is going to be impacting state airports for years to come, including us … state funding has gone from about $2 million a year to about $600,000.”

For more about the legislation go to www.capitol.tn.gov. The bill’s number is SB 0020.

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