It has taken more than 50 years and four mayoral administrations, but the City of Olive Branch is set to take ownership of its airport.
City officials, past and present, praised the continuity of effort which led to the recent federal grant award totaling about $15.7 million. The funds will cover 90 percent of the airport’s purchase price.
The remaining 10-percent local match is funded by a $2.5 million general obligation bond. The debt service on the bond issue will be paid for with airport revenues, so no taxpayer money is needed.
The Olive Branch Airport, as most know, has been in existence since the early 1970s. But, the city started its attempt to start an airport as early as 1967, according to City Attorney Bryan Dye.
“Since 1967, the City has considered and pondered the development of a municipal airport,” Dye said. “In the city’s minutes from the April 4, 1967 board meeting, there was a discussion about obtaining an airport near Olive Branch. In October and November 1967, the Town of Olive Branch actually put the property that today is the Olive Branch Airport with an option to purchase that property. The Town had the opportunity to buy it and had the property under an option to purchase.”
However, the airport land and the facility was eventually developed by Kemmons Wilson, the founder of the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. While considered a municipal airport, it has been under private ownership, with Metro Aviation Services, a Belz Enterprises entity, being the current owner and operator.
The grant award came with application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and assistance from the Washington Congressional delegation from Mississippi, including Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who jointly announced the award. It was part of nearly $617 million in airport infrastructure grants under the Airport Improvement Program.
The purchase of the airport is set to close by the end of October. Mayor Scott Phillips said all airport employees will become city employees, if they choose to continue there, and the airport will become another department of the city.
“The management portion of it will change because you’re going from private to public ownership and there are certain things in a public setting and entity that we have to do that will be different than a private setting by state law and statute,” Phillips said. “It’s going to change, but the existing staff stays the same at this point. This will be the airport division of the city. You’ll have a manager there and staff that will report to the Mayor’s office or otherwise delegated.”
Phillips pointed out the city always has called the airport “theirs” but by owning it will make sure it stays a vital part of the city.
“We felt, as well as the FAA, that the airport was vital to the community and its economic development with the industrial park,” Phillips said. “It’s another resource that we would have that some others would not have to be favorable to bring these types of businesses in and around that particular area.”
Dye added the current ownership was required to keep it as an airport through 2029, but could decide to do something else after that date if it chose to.
“The property is zoned industrial, so hypothetically, the property could be developed as industrial property after 2029,” Dye pointed out. “The FAA has certainly prioritized as keeping the airports that we have in the country. There’s a homeland security function to that, an economic development function to it. Once you close an airport, you’ll never really get it back.” Milton Nichols and Sam Rikard have served as mayors in Olive Branch before Phillips and during those periods when the city thought and re-thought about airport ownership.
“It’s taken all these years and it’s finally coming to fruition,” said Nichols. “I think it will be a great addition. It’s always been intended to be a municipal airport and the city will be able to secure more federal and state grants as they’re needed for continued improvement at the airport.”
“It’s been a viable part of the community for decades,” added Rikard. “It’s in the best interests of the future of Olive Branch and the entire Northwest Mississippi area that the airport remain viable and operating.”
The Olive Branch facility is considered the busiest airport in Mississippi, with more takeoffs and landings than facilities in Jackson and Gulfport-Biloxi. Phillips said he’d like to see more activity there, especially on the passenger side.
“I would like to see some type of passenger service at Olive Branch Airport,” Phillips said. “That would be one of the goals for the city of Olive Branch, to grow it into a passenger-type carrier where it becomes a option besides Memphis International Airport.”
What has become a 51-year-long project for the City of Olive Branch over four administrations is a testament to a continuity of local leadership pressing forward toward a goal expected to bring more economic opportunities and a transportation service not enjoyed elsewhere under city control for generations to come.
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.