Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson has failed in her attempt to gain control of much of H.L. “Sonny” Callahan Airport land for the city.
Following a discussion marked by sharp personal criticism of Wilson from Council President Jack Burrell, the council voted Dec. 22 to allow the Fairhope Airport Authority to maintain control of the land and to continue to pay debt service on a refinancing deal the authority is undertaking. Some 258 acres, making up a horseshoe around the airport, were purchased originally in 2007 for $8.75 million.
Because of the planned refinancing, the city’s contribution will drop from $428,000 this year to $320,000 annually for the next seven years.
Wilson brought the proposed takeover before the council at the end of last month, saying that the original financing plan now made up 21 percent of Fairhope’s debt service and that a clause in the agreement allowed the city to pay $10 and take back the land if the airport authority had not paid off the principal by 2012.
She has repeatedly said that Fairhope’s citizens didn’t know about the deal and that her administration, with a new economic and community development director, has different plans for the airport than does the airport authority. Wilson has also asked for an outside audit of the authority.
Burrell, who represents the council on the Fairhope Airport Authority, made a presentation on the authority’s finances, goals and case for retaining the land during the work session before the Dec. 22 meeting. That set off another debate, during which Burrell clearly became irritated with Wilson.
When he questioned Wilson’s choice of phrases such as “get to the bottom of it,” Wilson responded, “I’ve definitely made this a priority, to get to the bottom of it.”
Replied Burrell: “You say, ‘get to the bottom of it,’ like there’s a conspiracy. ‘Get to the bottom of it, audits,’ the threatening language that you use, that ‘we need to audit the finances, I need my own outside team to come in and make sure what they’re doing is right.’ I hear it over and over and over. It’s your theme of everything. It’s ‘everything’s wrong.’”
Burrell also accused Wilson of sending private citizens to City Hall to question employees. “We don’t even know who they are,” he said.
Before Wilson took office in November, the Fairhope Airport Authority had decided to refinance the loan. Authority Chairman Joe McEnerney said Dec. 23 the authority was waiting for the best time in terms of interest rates and bank approvals to proceed. When Wilson’s proposal came up, the authority stopped work on the refinancing for 45 days or until the ownership was resolved, he said.
Interest rates may end up being higher because of the delay, but McEnerney said he thinks the authority can still get a good deal.
Both Burrell and McEnerney acknowledged the authority needs to “wean itself” off city support. They think that can be done with a combination of Federal Aviation Administration grants for projects, secondary suppliers to the Airbus assembly plant that locate at the airport, the demand for hangar space all over Baldwin County and other development factors.
Wilson has said her administration will better represent the interests of Fairhope’s citizens who are paying the debt service and essentially paying for land the city doesn’t own.
The authority contends it has better connections and a track record in the aviation industry at time when Airbus suppliers are looking for sites. “The 62 acres of undeveloped property on the east side is the most valuable piece of real estate on the Eastern Shore in respect to aviation-related business,” according to the authority’s presentation to the council.
It also argued authorities can’t be sued for negligence, and the airport is an asset for the entire Eastern Shore, not just Fairhope. Nor is the Fairhope Airport Authority a political body. “The authority has a consistent mission not subject to political intrigue,” it said.
The authority also presented its master plan. Future capital improvements on the east side of the runway include a general aviation terminal, fuel farm, taxiways and aprons. When those are complete by 2018, the airport will seek private investors to build corporate hangars and recruit aviation businesses.
The west side is an Alabama Advantage site for major commercial development. Wetlands have been turned into a wetlands mitigation bank to sell credits to developers that disturb other wetlands with their projects. The authority also stays aligned with Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization in infrastructure support.