Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pilots, Northampton County discuss ways to keep Braden Airpark (N43) near Easton: With airport authority set to decide Forks airpark's fate, they ask for six more months to raise money to buy it

Small-plane pilots and Northampton County Council members are making an 11th-hour pitch in hopes of preventing Braden Airpark from being closed by the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority. 

While pilots have upped their offer to buy the 80-acre airfield in Forks Township, County Council President Peg Ferraro said she believes the county would be willing to kick in perhaps $50,000. Both are looking for a six-month extension to find a way to keep the single runway airfield open.

Meanwhile, airport authority officials have laid out the five options they'll chose from next week, including a new one that would surcharge the owners of the more than 200 small planes based in the Lehigh Valley to cover operating losses at Braden. With only 30 of those owners based at Braden, it's a bogus option designed to pit pilot against pilot, Braden supporters say.

"It's just ridiculous," said Michael Rosenfeld, president of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association. "Pilots aren't the only people benefiting from Braden and they can't afford that. This will never fly."

All the latest jockeying comes as the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority prepares for a Tuesday meeting in which it is scheduled to decide what to do with Braden Airpark. The authority, which runs Lehigh Valley International Airport, has been trying to sell unnecessary assets to help pay off a $26 million court debt for taking a developer's land in the 1990s, and they're trying to decide whether Braden should be closed and sold.

Authority Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. recommended selling the airport last year, but the authority last September gave pilots six months to find a way to buy or lease it themselves. That initial six-month clock runs out Tuesday.

Pilots have argued the airfield where thousands of local pilots have learned to fly since it opened in 1938 is too important to the community, while authority officials say the authority can no longer afford to subsidize an airport that loses money and needs $500,000 in capital improvements.

This week, pilots upped their offer to buy the airport from $1.25 million to $1.6 million, said Ed Lozano, an Easton businessman representing the pilot's group. And the authority lowered its asking price from $3.5 million to $3 million, but that still leaves the sides far apart.

Added to the mix is a late push by county officials to keep the debate going. County Council doesn't meet again until after the airport authority, but Ferraro said she believes the county can at least help cover Braden's losses if the authority agrees to a six-month extension.

County Community Development Administrator Lori Sywensky said County Executive John Brown has also discussed spending perhaps $50,000 to help bridge the annual gap between what pilots are willing to pay and what the authority says it needs.

The $50,000 figure is mostly related to what the county can spare, rather than what is being demanded by the airport.

"There's a feeling on council that we should do something. I know $50,000 has been kicked around," Ferraro said. "Braden is an important community asset. At the very least, it's worth talking about for another six months."

The authority will get a chance to extend the debate Tuesday, but Everett said he'll be making a recommendation from five options. They include the authority continuing to operate it, leasing it to a private operator, selling it to a private operator such as the pilots or closing it to sell for development.

The final option would be to operate it and pass the cost of the annual losses on to the small-plane owners across the Valley. Everett contends that loss is $250,000 a year, translating to more than $1,000 a year for every plane owner.

Pilots contend that's not only a disingenuous plan, but the loss number is false because it includes a $160,000 payment for a loan that was used to buy not just Braden in 1999 but also for several projects that had nothing to do with the airfield.

Everett hasn't revealed what his recommendation will be, but it's entirely possible the authority board won't need to hear it until October.

"Everyone would like to see the airport stay open, as long as it can support itself," Authority Chairman Marc Troutman said. "I think board members would consider an extension if we think it will lead to definite answers."

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