DALLAS -- When state officials created a revenue bond-issuing authority to build a regional airport in northwest Arkansas, local officials brimmed with enthusiasm at the economic growth it could bring.
But Zola Moon, a resident of the area, bristled over the notion that a board appointed by Gov. Bill Clinton and lawmakers in 1990 could make decisions about the fast-growing region's largest public works project with no direct input from the almost 250,000 people who live in the Ozark region.
"I don't object to the idea of a regional airport," said Moon, a critic of the state-created Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority. But "we believe the authority structure gives too much power to appointed people and removes the people from any decision," she said.
On Tuesday, she and others in two counties and five cities will have their say in whether any or all of the seven local governments will continue as part of the airport authority.
Because the authority only needs two of the seven to continue, observers concede the project is not likely to be jeopardized by the vote. But supporters are worried that one or more of the cities of Springdale, Siloam Springs, Fayetteville, Rogers, and Bentonville, as well as Benton and Washington counties, could be excluded from the airport authority because voters may be confused by ballot wording.
The referendums ask voters whether they want their city or county to leave the project. Because of that phrasing, a yes vote for the question would be a vote against the airport. Moreover, officials expect a massive turnout because Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, is heading Tuesday's ballot.
Both sides are predicting victory.
"It's a rather slick deal," said George Westmoreland, who has chaired the airport authority since its inception. "What we're very concerned about is confusion because of the way it is worded."
While opponents say their issue is one of representation, supporters say the real issue is growth.
"The issue is whether you are anti-growth," said Westmoreland, a broker for Merrill Lynch & Co. "We coin a phrase in Arkansas. We say they are againers. If they weren't against this, they'd be against something else."
"I wish representation was the issue," said Lee Donner, managing director and senior partner at the Llama Co., a Fayetteville-based brokerage that hopes to underwrite bonds that could be needed to build the airport. "They are really not voting about whether the airport is going to exist."
He said critics have been stirring opposition to the project by comparing the proposed airport, which would be self-supporting and require no local tax moneys, to a failed Fayetteville incinerator project.
The $22 million project was stopped by a popular vote after bonds had been sold and city officials had agreed to back the revenue project to obtain lower interest costs. The result: Fayetteville residents will be paying a $2.02 monthly fee on their water bills until a $7 million project balance is retired.
"A very small group of people have managed to create a connection between the airport and the old incinerator," Donner said. "I think the issues have become confused."
But for Moon and other opponents of the proposed airport, the project represents another potential cost to local taxpayers. She believes that even if airport revenue bonds are to be sold, they should be approved by voters.
"We believe the reality is that taxpayers are the deep pocket behind these projects," she said, stressing that local control is her only issue. "Even if all the money were free, if somebody gave us the bonds, we should still have a say in whether development gets done."
Even if some of the seven local governments who make up the authority are forced to withdraw from the project, no one interviewed expects Tuesday's vote to stop what could initially be at least a $150 million cargo and passenger airport.
"I think it's absolutely essential for northwest Arkansas to have a regional airport," said Walter Turnbow, a founder of a business and citizens group pushing support for the airport. "But it has to be regional because we have common interests and we are growing together."
Backers envision a massive regional airport that would allow for more nonstop passenger flights while becoming a major cargo facility and industrial hub.
There is already strong passenger usage in the area, with an estimated 300,000 passengers annually flying out of Fayetteville's Drake Field. The airport, which accommodates about 40 departing flights a day, is already the busiest single-runway facility in the Southwest, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
When the regional project was proposed, officials estimated it could cost up to $261 million to build an airport capable of handling international traffic. The plan has now been scaled down to $150 million for a single, 8,000-foot runway, terminals, and related facilities. Officials say such an airport could be open by 1995.
Westmoreland said the authority hopes to win federal funding for 60% to 70% of the project's cost. Some money would come from private sources while the remainder could come from bond sales.
"The real crux of how much we need in bonds will depend on a maintenance center," he said.
Project officials hope to attract a major airline maintenance center such as the one built by American Airlines at the privately owned Alliance Airport near Fort Worth. The facility required $400 million in tax-exempt financings.
But Moon's concern is not finance. "There are 14 people on the authority and they read like a who's who of big business," she said. "We are just challenging the process because we think it's bad government."