HIGHFILL — Officials at Northwest Arkansas National Airport are considering an out-of-court divorce from the town of Highfill, but the town’s mayor said the move could be economically disastrous.
“I think it’s time for the board to have a discussion; it’s something we’ve been talking about for some time, and that’s the deannexation of the town of Highfill,” said Jonathan Barnett, member of the Board of Directors, addressing the subject. “I think the time is right. Highfill is taking off. Highfill has come a long way.”
Barnett, who represents Benton County, said the airport needs to maintain a good relationship with the city, but with many projects the airport is planning, it needs more autonomy.
The board voted unanimously on Wednesday for staff to explore the pros and cons of de-annealing Highfill as well as how the process works and what approach to take. The council will host state lawmakers next week, and the issue could be discussed then.
Highfill Mayor Michelle Rieff doesn’t want to see the airport cut off from the city, which surrounds the airport on four sides.
“A very large part of our revenue comes from the sales tax we get from the airport,” Rieff said. “We have two bonds and two cents of our sales tax is going toward paying off those bonds. It’s $7 million. That could have a very negative impact on the city, financially.”
Highfill collects sales tax money from seven or eight airport food vendors, six car rental companies and other miscellaneous retailers, according to Rieff.
“So you can imagine the blow that Highfill would make,” Rieff said.
Rieff said the city spends $700,000 a year servicing bond debt. The city projected that it would receive $750,000 in sales tax proceeds next year. Rieff said city bond attorneys are working on numbers to share with airport officials, showing what the financial impact will be.
“I don’t know how we would make up that shortfall and pay off those bonds because Highfill doesn’t have a lot of businesses and industries right now,” Rieff said. “It’s concerning.”
Airport officials said Highfill benefited from the tax dollars generated by the airport, but the airport received no services from Highfill in return.
“From the perspective of the services that are provided and the ability for us to use some of that revenue for airport purposes, we think that’s a good thing,” said Aaron Burkes, CEO of the airport. . “We really benefit from a small community that is barely our customer base and they literally don’t provide us with any services other than buying them water, which we can buy in Bentonville. We don’t get a lot of municipal services that go with that.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, which operates XNA, has its own police and fire departments and maintains roads on airport property, officials said.
The money the airport now pays Highfill — about $500,000 a year — could be used for airport projects that benefit the region without restrictions, Burkes said.
Another issue is that Highfill is not a member of the authority, which consists of representatives from Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs, Springdale, and Washington and Benton counties.
“It seems a little strange that we’re here, this regional entity, and we’ve been sucked into a small municipality, and yet we have a lot of powers that a municipality has,” Burkes said. “I understand the reason for that from their perspective; it was a great source of income for them, but we’re still going to provide the boosting economic effect whether we’re part of it or not.”
Burkes said the new airport access road will provide Highfill with more opportunities for growth. And growth is already underway, with several new subdivisions nearby, he said.
“It’s going to increase their ability to fund their sewer projects and things like that,” Burkes said. “They’re getting big enough that they’re not so dependent on one source of income anymore.”
The airport occupies a unique position, he said.
“We’re quite unusual in that we’re a large airport that’s kind of been engulfed in a hostile takeover, if you want to call it that, by a small municipality that’s seen a stream of revenue, basically, and we didn’t have a vote,” Burkes said.
Highfill – then with a population of 320 – annexed much of the then newly announced airport site in 1995 with the landowners’ consent. Then, by a vote of 40 to 7, residents annexed more of the area in 1997. The airport opened in November 1998.
Springdale board member Philip Taldo said he is sensitive to the issues facing small towns and the airport will always need to maintain a relationship with the city.
“These roads and streets don’t end when they reach our property line,” Taldo said. “So we need a plan, I think, that’s not one-sided. We have to keep in mind that we’re going to be depending on them to maintain the roads and the highways coming our way. We don’t want to let them put sawhorses across the road.”
Burkes said the airport has maintained a good relationship with Highfill, and they have been helpful in planning for land use around the airport with respect to noise. Rieff said the city has ensured zoning near the airport is compatible and plans to pass an aviation ordinance next week for land below the airport approaches.
“None of us are really looking to, I don’t think, have a negative impact on Highfill,” said Mike Johnson, who represents Fayetteville on the board. “We are looking to the future, the long term, how can we operate for the best of the region.”
Road to the future
Plans for a new access road to Northwest Arkansas National Airport are on schedule for the project to be tendered in early 2024, and construction could also begin during the first part of this year, officials said Wednesday. Completion would come in 2026 or 2027. Money for the project has already been identified in Arkansas Department of Transportation plans for the next several years.
The preferred route is a fairly straight shot from a new interchange on the Springdale Northern Bypass, just west of the Arkansas 112 interchange, to the airport entrance. It follows the Osage Creek valley for much of the way. Plans call for the road to be 3.4 miles long with a 70mph speed limit.
“Hopefully we can innovate in the not too distant future,” said Mike Johnson, who chairs the Authority’s Access Roads Task Force.