JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson’s international airport was front and center at Thursday night’s mayoral debate, with Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba saying the state is attempting to use it as leverage for helping the city with its failing infrastructure.
“I sat down with the lieutenant governor to talk about Jackson’s infrastructure problem. We had a conversation that lasted for about an hour and a half, and he asked everyone to leave the room only to say, ‘Mayor, I need you to give me my airport, and I look at it for about $30 million,’” Lumumba said.
“Not only am I supposed to be dumb, (but) I’m also supposed to be cheap.”
Lumumba did not say when the conversation with Hosemann occurred.
The mayor was addressing a statement from Republican candidate Ponto Downing, who criticized Lumumba for being unwilling to work with the state, and that the city should sell the airport and use proceeds to rebuild its water system.
“That’s a drop in the bucket … That’s not going to fix it,” Downing said, referencing the mayor’s request. “I can get $470 million. A real simple way to do that (is to) sell the airport.”
He went on to say that the mayor should “be nice (and) comply with Tate Reeves, who is the governor. Fix this city for the benefit of the citizens.”
For his part, Lumumba said the city should not “give in to extortion to those who want to strip the resources of the city of Jackson.”
Leah Smith, deputy chief of staff for Hosemann, said she was not aware of the specifics of any conversation with the mayor, but said that “our office does support resolution of the airport situation for the betterment of the citizens of Jackson, the metro area, and the state as a whole.”
At the heart of the matter are the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and the state’s efforts to wrest control of it from the city.
In 2016, lawmakers approved a bill to take over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and replace the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority with a regional board made up of state, county, and city appointees.
The bill was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant and was expected to go into effect that July 1.
However, the city, along with JMAA, has been fighting the takeover in U.S. District Court.
A suit was filed in April 2016 and has dragged on in the discovery phase ever since, with attorneys for the city wanting to find out the state’s motives for the facility.
Jackson leaders have long since claimed that the state’s motives were race-based.
Airport legislation was pushed by white Republicans and signed into law by a white Republican governor.
Meanwhile, the capital city is majority Black and all members of the JMAA board are African-American. Members are currently appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Jackson City Council.
State lawmakers have denied those claims but have fought efforts to uncover communication between lawmakers during the discovery phase, saying that the city’s efforts to obtain email correspondence would have a “chilling effect’ on future efforts to pass legislation.
Publicly, supporters of the takeover have pointed to airport management, arguing that poor management at the facility led to Southwest Airlines leaving in 2014.
“That should validate the fact that the city should run the airport,” Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote said. “But if they want to take it over, the logical way is to come up with the value of the airport property.”
Foote said the state should determine the airport’s worth, rather than simply throwing out a number like $30 million and negotiate a purchase price with the city.
The airport is in Rankin County, just south of Lakeland Drive, and includes property along the East Metro Parkway and Airport Road.
“It has about 5,000 acres,” Foote said. “There’s some very serious value in the airport itself. Let’s start with the appraised value and go from there.”