New City Council aims to bring airport authority to the table

Passenger jets sit parked at Kingman Airport and Industrial Park, victims of the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The city council, thanks to three new members who will take their seats next month, have made bringing new businesses to the site a priority, as have incumbent Mayor Richard Anderson and his challenger, Monica Gates. To date, the Kingman Airport Authority refuses to revisit its contract with the city of Kingman.

Photo by JC Amberlyn.

Passenger jets sit parked at Kingman Airport and Industrial Park, victims of the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The city council, thanks to three new members who will take their seats next month, have made bringing new businesses to the site a priority, as have incumbent Mayor Richard Anderson and his challenger, Monica Gates. To date, the Kingman Airport Authority refuses to revisit its contract with the city of Kingman.

KINGMAN – The Kingman Airport and Industrial Park and its beleaguered governing body, the Kingman Airport Authority, have been front and center in advance of this year’s city council election.

The issues are many and varied. Here are two that are key: Concern over the lack of major employers for nearly eight years and a long-term contract that marries the authority to the city of Kingman until 2053.

Critics say the contract strongly favors the authority, but not everyone is on the same page. Councilwoman Jen Miles, for example, has defended the authority, in large measure thanks to her advocacy of the Kingman and Mohave Manufacturing Association, KAMMA, and its membership consisting of the owners or managers of many of the airport’s manufacturing companies. The group has gone to considerable expense to establish a hands-on training program for the Kingman workforce.

The Authority

The airport has not recovered from the Great Recession and has not leased new or previously occupied a single significant employer for about eight years – until Big Industrial came in and renovated the massive Southwire building. But Big Industrial is still looking for a tenant. This isn’t to say companies haven’t opened their doors over that time, but they are small and not the kind of businesses that would require dozens of employees or more, along with access to the airport and the BNSF tracks that run through the fairly vast industrial park.

Here’s what candidates and others have said about the KAA and the general state of the airport industrial park.

They say the authority, and specifically Dave French, its executive director, fail to adequately respond to those employers that are there – at least some of them – at best. At worst, they say they are disrespected and marginalized.

In response to that perception, the Airport Users Group was formed. Meetings were held. Hundreds of members of the community at large signed a petition calling for changes. And in those meetings, people discussed the need to get involved if they were going to change their opinion of life at the airport.

Meanwhile, another group, PEAK, with economic development separate from the city’s efforts in mind, also lobbied for changes at the airport.

Virtually every person who ran for city council, as incumbent or challenger, said the airport was at least number two on their priority list. Three of four mayoral candidates cited it as a key issue, with Harley Pettit being the lone exception.

Four of the challengers, including mayoral candidate Monica Gates, were involved at some level either with PEAK or the Airport Users Group, and they were present at those meetings when getting involved was encouraged.

Those planted seeds bore fruit for both organizations as at least three of them will take a seat on the dais in December when they join Miles and Councilmen Mark Abram and Stuart Yocum. The only drama left is who sits in the mayor’s chair.

Making a Case

Councilman-elect Travis Lingenfelter, who won his seat on the council following the Aug. 30 primary election, and council members-elect Jamie Stehly and David Wayt, who landed the remaining two seats when Gary Rucker backed out in October, all made the airport authority one of their top two issues. Lingenfelter, it should be noted, founded PEAK. Rucker belongs to the Airport Users Group.

Lingenfelter has been particularly passionate in his insistence the future of Kingman is tethered to the airport – and the future is in peril because the airport authority, he and others believe, has failed in its mission to lure employers to the airport’s industrial park.

Lingenfelter has publicly endorsed Gates, who also sees the airport as one of her top issues.

Lingenfelter also has been highly critical of Mayor Richard Anderson on social media, and Anderson has joined in the civil online debate.

Anderson agrees the airport issue is serious – he has had his own dust-ups with French, the executive director, but he also believes it is far from the only important matter before the council.

The Beginning

The airport issue is complex and its genesis began more than a decade ago when French, then a city councilman, was named the interim director of the authority. At the time, a pair of council members – including Gates, a former mayor and council member – questioned whether putting an elected official in the position constituted a conflict of interest.

What isn’t known is at what point a previous council formally named French the KAA executive director. Since he took the position, French has gained a reputation, fairly or not, of lacking people skills. His personality has been described as abrasive. Yet, French has won elections and has kept his position at the airport for more than a decade. He serves as a director on a number of boards, including the Kingman Regional Medical Center Foundation and Mohave State Bank.

The focus isn’t on French’s personality, but for fledgling enemies Anderson and Lingenfelter, it’s on job creation and all of the big picture work that goes into making that happen.

The Contract

The City Council in 2015 was set to discuss the agreement a prior council signed with the authority a decade earlier. The airport issue was on a council agenda item requested by Councilman Abram. However, Abram asked that it be taken off the table when the KAA attorney arrived. The Council agreed, but not before Lingenfelter delivered a strongly-worded argument against doing so.

Most recently the council, at Lingenfelter’s urging, requested state Attorney General Mark Brnovich to order his staff to review the contract and render an opinion on its validity. His office declined, saying it doesn’t have authority to conduct such an investigation without certain conditions in play.

The contract signed in 2005 is good until 2028 on paper, but it comes with an automatic 25 year renewal. This isn’t the issue for critics of the authority.

The length of the contract is typical for industrial parks, where land is often leased, as companies can invest a vast amount of capital into a site and need assurances they will be there for the long haul.

The length of the contract, however, does come into play when it comes to the crux of this story, and that is the argument that there are no benchmarks included in the contract to measure the authority’s performance.

The authority, seemingly convinced the contract is rock solid, has publicly discussed few of the concerns that have been raised on three fronts. They have said, however, that Kingman in general and the airport and industrial park, specifically, have not fully recovered from the recession.

One thing is certain. City Manager John Dougherty, City Attorney Carl Cooper and department heads will have to deal with a new city council come December.

At least three and perhaps as many as five of them will likely want to exhaust every available resource in getting the authority back to the negotiating table.