TCRA ready to pitch airport authority concept to owners

Hank Hayes • May 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Tri-Cities Regional Airport officials are getting ready to hold a big town hall-style meeting for the people who run the region’s town halls.

At this for-information-purposes-only meeting, to be held Thursday evening at Northeast State Technical Community College, TCRA will attempt to sell city and county officials on the idea that creating an airport authority is in TCRA’s and the region’s best interests.

It could be the largest ever meeting of elected officials and government staff people in the region’s history. As many as 120 people could be at the event, according to TCRA. The city and county officials from both Bristols, Sullivan County, Washington County, Kingsport and Johnson City are the airport’s owners now served by TCRA’s 12-member Airport Commission as the airport’s main policy-making entity.

On Friday, members of the TCRA Executive Committee went over the rough details of Thursday’s presentation and listed the authority’s advantages and potential concerns that might come up during the meeting.

“The number one reason (not to create an airport authority) was if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” TCRA legal counsel Bill Bovender said during the committee’s two-hour session.

“That may not be a good opening line (at Thursday’s meeting),” Mayor James Rector of Bristol, Va., responded.

Bristol, Va., which holds a 10 percent stake in TCRA, has been the lone TCRA owner that hasn’t formally approved the airport being governed by an authority. But Rector suggested his City Council is leaning that way. The council has approved the concept in a public vote but would feel more comfortable if it had congressional approval, Rector said.

A draft of the Tennessee private act legislation says it is needed because Bristol, Va., is an out-of-state owner, making TCRA not eligible for an authority charter under Tennessee law. Of the six commercial airports in the state, TCRA is the only one not governed by an authority.

Creating an airport authority would give TCRA eminent domain power and the ability to issue bonds for capital improvements. Under the draft authority legislation, TCRA would become its own governmental organization acting as an instrument of the cities and counties, and be exempt from all taxation.

The authority commission membership and ownership setup would not change. Washington and Sullivan counties, in addition to Johnson City and Kingsport, would each continue to have a 20 percent stake in TCRA. The cities of Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va., would still own 10 percent apiece. Each owner would still be able to appoint representatives to an airport authority commission.

The two questions expected to generate much discussion at Thursday’s meeting are: If the owners transfer power to an authority, who is ultimately responsible for TCRA’s bond issues that generated about $8 million worth of debt? Plus, what is the ultimate liability responsibility of the owners?

“I can certainly envision a situation in the not-too-distant future where you could end up with an operating deficit that somebody would have to make up,” Bovender told the Executive Committee. “Right now (TCRA Executive Director) Patrick (Wilson) would basically have to send a bill to the owners and say ‘Pay your share.’”

But TCRA is also expected to say at the meeting that the airport authority is needed to speed up economic development on its airfield and on adjacent undeveloped land.

“Economic development people have told me the length of time it takes to get a (corporate) hangar down there (at TCRA) is a distraction,” Commissioner John Gillenwater of Bristol, Tenn., said.

Airport Commission Vice Chairman Ken Maness of Kingsport was appointed to be the meeting’s moderator.

“We’re the stewards of this airport. We have to do everything to make it work well and serve the public well from Roanoke to Knoxville,” Maness said.

If TCRA gets positive feedback from the owners at the meeting, Wilson said the issue will be back in the hands of the Airport Commission to make a decision.

TCRA is expected to serve light refreshments at the event.

“When it’s over we may need heavy drinks,” Rector joked.

For more about TCRA go to www.triflight.com.

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