Oct. 06--TUPELO -- In March 2011, Universal Asset Management landed its first airplane at the Tupelo Regional Airport to much celebration and fanfare.
But there are few cheers and happy faces today, as UAM, airport officials and the city square off over a proposed $1.2 million repair to the old runway.
"There's been a feeling of distrust and uneasiness between the city, the airport and UAM, and that's not the way it should be," said Josh Abramson, the airport's executive director.
So how, and why, did the relationship sour? There seems to be no clear reason or singular event. But what is clear is several discussions over the past few weeks have done little to improve the situation.
UAM buys retired aircraft -- mostly passenger jets -- from around the world and takes them apart. The company sells salvageable but still usable and valuable parts, like the engines. Most of the rest of each plane, the 20-year-old Memphis-based company says, is recycled.
UAM promised 100 jobs within three years, and it now employs about 75 people. It leases the former Army Aviation Support Facility at the airport and a 453,000-square-foot warehouse in Verona.
It also pledges to spend $29 million in salaries and benefits, supplies, other purchases and utility payments in the next three years.
But landing larger planes like the 747 has been problematic at the airport from the start. The old taxiway and runway weren't built to support a nearly 400,000-pound plane, and airport personnel have used steel plates on the pavement in several areas to help move the planes. The stop-gap measures didn't stop the deterioration of the old pavement, which hasn't been fixed in 50 years. Planes also have gotten stuck, an embarrassing -- and aggravating -- problem.
Taxiway Bravo has been the worse for wear, and earlier this summer, Abramson said a $700,000 fix was necessary. The price was for raw materials only. With labor and engineering work, the price settled closer to $1.145 million.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton and then Chief Operating Officer Darrell Smith came up with an alternative solution: They brought out engineers to look at the most critical portion of the taxiway that needed repair and said it could be fixed for no more than $107,625.
Airport officials say the work is needed not only for UAM, but also for another tenant that also uses the taxiway, Webb's Agricultural Flying Service. In addition, the airport also needs access to nearby fuel tanks and use of the taxiway.
UAM Chief Operating Officer Keri Wright said there are some misconceptions and misinformation about her company's role in the taxiway and runway repair request.
"This is not a request from us, but it is about something outside our lease-hold area and it's about the infrastructure of the airport," she said. "We're a tenant that needs access to the area we lease, but we have difficulty with that access."
The airport authority says the work is needed regardless of who the tenant is, but some city leaders don't think it's the city's responsibility to pay for it. Some blame UAM for the damage done to the taxiway and runway, but airport officials insist everyone knew repairs had to be made when UAM was recruited.
Wright said the company has been standing with the airport authority in its request to make the repairs, and in doing so, has been unfairly targeted by critics.
"Yes, we'll benefit from the improvements, but this is also about the long-term economic development of the airport and the city," Wright said. "It's more than UAM."
More than a dozen closed-door meetings have been held over the past few weeks involving UAM, the airport and the city, but nothing substantive has emerged about the requested repairs.
Wright has repeatedly said the company wants to work with the city and airport to come up with a solution.
"I want to emphasize again that we see this as a partnership," she said. "We don't want this to be adversarial."
Keri Wright was named president and CEO on Monday after the company announced she had acquired Universal Asset Management, a Memphis-based company.
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