The $261 million field of dreams; if you build it in NW Arkansas, will they come?
Highfill in southern Benton County has a population of 92 people.
But it was a thriving town at the turn of the century.
Trains regularly stopped there to pick up apples from local orchards and to take on passengers.
That all changed when the apple blossoms withered away and the railroad pulled up its tracks.
Now, a $261 million proposal could drastically reshape the landscape.
Clearly, poultry and planes have supplanted apples and trains in northwest Arkansas.
There are plans to convert more than 2,000 acres of rolling pasture into the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
A four-phase study, paid for by a $636,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration and the state Department of Aeronautics, is under way.
An initial feasibility study is complete.
A site-selection study has narrowed the list of possible locations from 19 to two, both near Highfill. One location will be chosen during the next several weeks.
An airport master plan should be completed this summer.
An environmental impact statement is expected to follow in the fall before the FAA gives final approval for takeoff.
Several dozen homes, barns and chicken houses then would make way for a $144 million control tower-runway-taxiway complex, a $68 million cargo-maintenance facility and a $49 million passenger terminal.
Backers envision a project that will not only take care of the area’s future transportation needs but also will generate hundreds of jobs paying annual wages of $30,000 or more.
The economic boost would come to a region of the state already enjoying one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
Behind the airport proposal is the Northwest Arkansas Council, a powerful group of business and civic leaders that includes names such as Walton, Tyson and Hunt.
Factor in the group’s claim that the airport won’t require local funding, and one wonders how could such a sweet deal possibly lose.
But anything is possible when a determined lawyer is thrown into the mix.
Chris Kirby of Fayetteville is convinced the taxpayers of Benton and Washington counties ultimately will be saddled with a large portion of the airport debt. The attorney is the spokesman for the Partnership For Sustainable Growth, an umbrella group representing those who want to take a closer look at the proposal.
Kirby claims the airport venture began with a lie in 1990 and has followed a path of distortion ever since. According to Kirby, representatives of the Northwest Arkansas Council intentionally tricked the governing bodies of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, Siloam Springs, Benton County and Washington County into creating the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority.
Kirby accuses business leaders of pressuring quorum courts, city councils and city boards into breathing life into the authority. The sales pitch was that politicians had to act immediately so northwest Arkansas would not miss out on $90 million in federal grant money.
Because of this sense of urgency, the airport authority, an autonomous body with the power of eminent domain, was created.
John Elrod, an attorney for the authority, shakes his head in disgust when told of the conspiracy theories.
“People who are against the airport are using whatever means they can, including misrepresentation,” Elrod says.
Airport opponents gathered enough petition signatures to put the question of participating in the airport authority to the public. Voters in Benton and Washington counties will decide in November whether to stay in or pull out of the authority.
Due to the wording of the proposal, a “yes” vote is a vote against remaining in the authority.
Six of the region’s seven governing bodies would have to withdraw in order for the airport authority to be abolished.
“As a practical matter, I believe the FAA will take the popular vote into consideration |when deciding~ whether to fund the project or not,” says Mark Simmons, chairman of the airport authority and of Simmons Industries Inc., a Siloam Springs-based poultry company.
Airport supporters insist the only thing exiting the authority will accomplish is that a city or county will lose its say in the project. They say the airport will be funded by bonds backed by the airport authority, by private money and by federal grants. No local taxpayer funds will be involved, they maintain.
“The beauty of this project is that … none of the members bear any liability,” Elrod says.
Fayetteville’s city board decided to bring the matter to a vote within 90 days of receiving the required studies.
“We’re just waiting for that final report,” says Mayor Fred Vorsanger. “I’m convinced the environmental impact study will be the most interesting and most important part of the report.”
At Springdale, Mayor Charles McKinney is confident.
“If the election were held tomorrow, Springdale would vote overwhelmingly to stay in the authority, McKinney says. “This is an absolute necessity.”
Supporters say the opposition is paranoid because of a controversial Fayetteville incinerator project. The city board there unconditionally guaranteed a bond issue in order to obtain a better bond rating and lower the effective interest rate on a $22 million project.
The matter was put to a vote after the bonds were sold. The election killed the incinerator project but left the city responsible for the bonds. Fayetteville residents will be paying a $2.02 incinerator disengagement fee on their monthly water bills for several years to clear the $7 million balance that remained after the incinerator equipment was sold.
Some Fayetteville residents have dubbed the ordeal “the stealth incinerator” — everyone is paying for it, but no one can see it.
Opponents fear the airport authority somehow will obligate taxpayers without a public vote.
“The absurdity of it all is that the only way to do that would be to create a two-county improvement district, which would mean getting the approval of two-thirds of the property owners |in terms of real property value~,” Elrod says. “… Not even FDR during the heyday of his administration could strike a deal like that.”
Still, the airport authority attempted to diffuse the issue, amending its charter to strip itself of the power to create an improvement district. But an opinion by the state attorney general’s office said an authority can’t pick and choose its powers.
The best the authority could do after that was pass a resolution vowing not to form an improvement district.
Not surprisingly, that’s not enough for Kirby and other airport opponents. He doesn’t like the notion that what’s good for business automatically is good for the public.
Kirby points out that six of the authority’s 14 members also are members of the Northwest Arkansas Council. He says they stand to gain financially from the project.
“It’s what we like to call the economically incestuous coupling of the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority,” Kirby says.
The six members who serve on both the council and airport authority are Simmons; Ken Ewing of Rogers; Bill Foreman, plant manager for Franklin Electric Co. at Siloam Springs; George Billingsley, owner of International Travel of Northwest Arkansas at Bentonville; Ed Bradberry, president of Continental Ozark Inc. at Fayetteville; and Dan Ferritor, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
The other eight airport authority members are A.L. Miles of Bentonville; Tom Dees of Bentonville, owner of Holiday Island Development Corp. at Eureka Springs; Bill Martin, president of Arkansas Western Gas Co. at Fayetteville; George Westmoreland, vice president of the Rogers office Merrill Lynch & Co.; Bill Mathews, owner of McDonald’s of Springdale; James Irwin of Springdale; Jack Wilmoth, executive vice president of Peterson Industries Inc. at Decatur; and Dick Latta, owner of Latco Inc. at Lincoln.
If the conflict of interest is so strong, how is the airport authority getting away with it?
“Because I haven’t chosen to sue them yet,” Kirby says.
Many residents of the Highfill area already are wondering where the Highfill Hilton is going to be.
“The way I look at it, you can’t stop progress,” says Mayor Jerry Harwell. “Public opinion is split 60-40 in favor of the airport.”
Hendrix Supply Inc., four miles east of Highfill, claims it is the largest boot dealer in Arkansas. The business is located at what could be the south end of a 13,000-foot runway.
Terry Hendrix jokes about putting a flashing “Boots For Sale” sign on his roof to help guide pilots on their final approach. The 41-year-old businessman believes the project is a done deal that will force him to find a new location.
He doesn’t seem to mind, even though the airport could mean giving up 118 acres that has been in his family for three generations.
“I don’t relish losing the family farm, but I don’t want to block progress, either,” says Hendrix, who commutes daily from his home near Grove, Okla. “The people who are raising the most ruckus live more than 15 miles away, and it’s really none of their damn business.”
Benton County Judge Bruce Rutherford is waiting until all the studies are completed to take a stand.
“I haven’t really taken a stance,” he says. “I want to see the feasibility study and environmental study.”
For Rogers, the regional airport represents the biggest potential economic boon since the White River was dammed to form Beaver Lake and Daisy Manufacturing Co. moved its operations from Michigan.
“Those two events will be eclipsed as far as our economy goes,” says Mayor John Sampier Jr.
One thing airport supporters have going for them is the backing of Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, R-Ark. Hammerschmidt is one of the most powerful members of the House and the ranking minority member on the influential Public Works and Transportation Committee.
UP, UP AND AWAY
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There had been speculation that Hammerschmidt, who first was elected to the House in November 1966, would not seek re-election. Most political insiders now seem to believe he will seek another term.
The effort to create a regional airport goes back decades. Washington County voters approved an earlier proposal, but Benton County voters narrowly defeated it. The project required approval by voters in both counties.
Drake Field at Fayetteville, which began as a general aviation facility in 1936, is the only full-service airport in the region.
A 20-year master plan completed in 1990 forecasts that Drake Field will be able to handle northwest Arkansas’ flight demands until 2005. Surrounding mountains would prevent expansion after that.
“If I have a question at all, it’s … the time frame they have for building the new airport,” says Dale Frederick, the Drake Field manager.
Boosters are pointing to 1994 as the year commercial jets will begin touching down at a new regional airport.
Drake Field, which had its first scheduled passenger flight in 1954, cannot accommodate jet passenger service because of the topography. The airport still had 160,000 boardings during 1991 and averaged 42 daily departures.
The 30-48 passenger flights are made by American Eagle, USAir, Air Midwest, Northwest Express, TWA Express and Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
“We have always thought Drake Field eventually would have to be replaced with a new facility,” says Lacey Spriggs, a community planner with the FAA in Fort Worth, Texas. “The population is outgrowing Drake Field and we need to start planning for that.”
But is a regional airport the answer?
The question is being debated daily on the editorial pages of local newspapers.
“After extensive travel abroad and in this country, if those pushing the regional airport in this part of Arkansas think it will fly, they are in my opinion one-half bubble off plumb,” wrote A.M. Giese of Fayetteville in The Morning News at Springdale.
The debate over who is on the level and who isn’t will rage for months in northwest Arkansas. The atmosphere has heated up with each successive meeting of the airport authority.
Will the project cause a schism between the business community and many area residents?
That question hasn’t been answered — yet.
Originally published in ‘Arkansas Business’. Copied 3/13/14 from: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+%24261+million+field+of+dreams%3b+if+you+build+it+in+NW+Arkansas%2c…-a012070445