Sylacauga’s mayor and city council members have found themselves squeezed between a rock and a hard place during the past year, faced with a Gordian knot that has been tangled and tightened for at least 16 years.
That’s when a previous council transferred title for acreage at the airport to the city’s Industrial Development Board. The IDB, in cooperation with other entities, built a $1.4 million speculative building on part of that land in hopes of attracting an industrial tenant. That was about seven years ago and there have been no takers.
Plans drawn up for expansions and improvements at the airport, which would have been made largely through federal grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, were put on hold after it was belatedly discovered that the IDB’s acreage was included in those plans. The FAA offered to buy some of the IDB’s acreage at fair market value in order to proceed with expansion at the airport, but IDB members refused to sell. They argue that the building will be more attractive to a potential occupant with the additional acreage available for expansion.
Grants from the FAA for improvements and expansions are critical to the operations and maintenance of small airports. Without them, more of the expense for maintenance falls on the owner of the airport—in this case, that is the city of Sylacauga.
In a split decision last week the city council voted to remove the IDB acreage from the plan for expansion at the airport, which the FAA had agreed to fund. By removing that acreage, the city is risking not only this particular FAA grant, but also future grants. A representative from the FAA previously told the council that without the land in question development on that side of the airfield is blocked, and the agency would not want to rebuild something “you destroyed by taking away the utility of the airport.”
The current mayor and council didn’t create the situation, and it’s not entirely clear how or why the land so close to the runway was given to the IDB in the first place. That might have been part of the discussions the mayor and council members secretly had last month. They met in small groups in serial meetings with the engineering firm that drew up the airport expansion plan in 2007. Technically the serial meetings were legal. A 2012 Alabama Supreme Court ruling said the state’s current Open Meetings Act does not specifically prohibit serial meetings; bills moving through the Legislature now have more specific language to ban the practice, and help the public better understand how their government works and why decisions are made.
Meanwhile, we have the IDB holding on to land to make a $1.4 million spec building more desirable for a tenant who wants to locate near an airport, but by holding on to that land future FAA grants are being jeopardized. If future FAA grants are cut off, the city will be responsible for the full costs of maintenance and improvements at the airport. Whether future councils would be willing or able to fund those costs puts the airport’s long-term future at risk.
Both the airport and the IDB are important to the city’s future, and also to each other’s success. It would be in everyone’s interest to find a solution that keeps both entities on solid ground.