UAM said it had no choice but to run a clean operation, or else the FAA wouldn't certify its parts to sell, which generate millions of dollars for the company. The airport spent $50,000 for trees to help create a screen from the road, but that did little to assuage the complaints. Besides, there isn't a tree big enough in this area of the country to hide a four-story-tall tail of a 747.
Certainly, there were those who liked seeing the big planes at the airport. For the first few arrivals, many people would line up and watch them arrive.
Still, the grumbling continued about the appearance of the operations at the airport. UAM and the airport have since built additional berms to help hide more of the planes
Don House, the mayor of Walnut Ridge, Ark., knows UAM well.
The company disassembled planes in Walnut Ridge for nearly seven years before it moved to Tupelo.
The details vary about why UAM left Walnut Ridge. But it boils down to UAM wanting to bring in additional 747s to the airport, but the airport commission saying it could not.
"It was a learning situation for all of us because this was something new," House said. "Looking back, we would have done something different. We have no hard feelings. We'd invite another business like them -- we'd invite them back -- as long as they don't bring in the 747s and other big planes like that."
House said UAM has cleared its former space at the airport, and still makes timely payments on a building whose lease runs out in December.
"They cleaned everything up like they said they would," House said. "There aren't any planes left."
And House said he understands UAM had to make a business decision to move to Tupelo.
"They wanted to land 747s, and we said we couldn't let that happen anymore," he said.
House added, "And let me make it clear UAM did a lot of good things in the community. They made a lot of contributions to organizations, supported a lot of causes. But yes, the relationship did get strained over the planes."
House said he's spoken to officials from Tupelo about UAM and the talks about the runway repairs. He offered only this: "Good luck."
Some council members want UAM to contribute to the $1.2 million project, as much as half, or else they won't support the effort.
UAM doesn't think it should pay for something for which it believes the city and airport are responsible. It also cites the investments it has made and has pledged to make over the next three years. The plan includes boosting employment to 105 workers, a $750,000 capital investment and the recruitment of an FAA-certified parts station that would employ 25 people paying an average of $40,000 a year.
"We've bought as much as we can locally and will continue to buy local as much as we can," Wright added.
This, airport officials say, shows UAM's commitment to the community and why the city should pay for the runway repair.
"We've introduced aviation to a lot of people, we've partnered with schools, we contribute to local nonprofits and other groups, we support numerous sports teams. ... we wouldn't do this if we weren't committed to the community," Wright said. "We want to be here. You asked us to be here. And we want to say here."
UAM has 75 workers now. Granted, some transferred from Walnut Ridge along with UAM, but most now live in Lee County.
They live here, they eat here, they spend the money here, they pay their taxes here, airport leaders say.
If UAM, the airport and the city can't come up with a mutual agreement for the runway work, they could leave.
And, it should be noted, UAM now pays $105,000 a year on its lease. It increases next year to $110,000.
That doesn't fully cover the $125,000 yearly debt service of the airport, which in fact is being paid by the city. If UAM leaves, the debt payment has to be made, and one large source of revenue disappears, unless another tenant can fill the void.
The airport has 22 acres adjacent to the old runway it still can develop, but if it's to be used, the runway will have to be repaired anyway.
That may be the case, city officials say, but it doesn't have to cost $1.2 million.
Abramson knows he's taken heat for bringing in UAM but defends the decision.
"At the time we signed the lease with UAM, we had 10 consecutive months of boarding increases," he said. "We had a $1,728,354 bill from the Guard and a company coming in willing to make payments that covered most of it. But it so happened that passenger boardings just started dropping soon after that. But I still believe that it was the right decision."
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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