Negotiations are under way to build a new 800-space parking garage at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
Nearly eight years have passed since the Biloxi-Gulfport Regional Airport Authority members and airport executives started talks about the construction of a three-story parking garage. Airport officials say they wanted the garage because that's what South Mississippi residents were demanding.
"A parking garage among airports is like a status symbol and prestige thing," said Cy Faneca, the airport's attorney. "It's one of the factors from the public's perspective that is thought of being associated with a first-class airport. With the parking garage, you don't necessarily have to walk 500 or 600 feet in the rain to get inside."
The airport authority's goal is to build a garage that will complement the terminal, which is undergoing a $50 million expansion that is expected to be completed in the spring or summer of 2006. "It won't just be a concrete box," said Bruce Frallic, the airport's executive director.
Tennessee-based Republic Parking Systems will pay for the project as long as airport officials are able to negotiate a contract that proves profitable for both the airport and the private company. The airport authority and airport executives ultimately decide whether the project is feasible.
Republic operates the airport's existing parking lot, and this year made a profit for the airport of $850,000. The airport would want at least that much to sign a contract for a parking garage with Republic.
Faneca said Republic, one of two companies to submit proposals in the late 1990s for the airport's parking business, was selected to operate the parking lot for two reasons: Republic was going to generate more money for the airport than a competitor, and it submitted a proposal to build the parking garage. The other company felt the garage wasn't feasible.
Frallic said he's optimistic negotiations with Republic for the garage, which will cost the company an estimated $13.8 million, will be finalized soon. "We feel good about it, but we're not there yet," Frallic said recently.
Republic Parking officials have already hired local contractor Jimmy Levens of J. Levens Builders Inc. in Long Beach, to build the garage. Levens and three others bid on the project, with the top two contenders being Levens and Roy Anderson Corp.
Republic officials said they chose Levens in part because the two companies have been working together for more than five years. He also was the lowest bidder.
Republic is not required to solicit proposals because it is a private company.
"We're not going to invest $13 million unless there is a comfort level" between Republic and its builder, said Chris Howley, executive vice president for Republic. "In my opinion, the airport needs a project like this to continue to grow."
Last year, about 865,000 people used the Gulfport-Biloxi airport. Officials estimate that number will increase this year to 874,000.
Airport officials said they're banking on a future that will include a first-class terminal, multi-level garage and other amenities to ensure continued growth at the airport.
Having a new parking garage is a big part of that growth, airport officials said.
The airport doesn't have the money to build the garage on its own. It can't borrow the money because it has maxed out its borrowing power with a $38 million revenue bond for the terminal expansion.
The airport received $12 million in federal funds for the expansion project.
The only other option is to build it with general obligation bonds, which would be paid for using taxpayer dollars. The authority said that's an option it refuses to consider.
The terminal expansion includes a second lane at the security checkpoint location; two additional jet bridges, which are walkways that extend from the terminal to airplanes; high-tech displays with flight, baggage and gate information and extra space for two additional airlines.
"When I was appointed by the city of Biloxi, the first thing they (residents) said was 'get us jet service,' " said airport authority member Frank Genzer. "Five years later, when it was time to be reappointed, we had jet service. Then they said 'get us a parking garage; we're tired of walking the distance we have to walk to the terminal'... so the parking garage... has been something the community has been demanding."