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Authority shoots down Allentown mayor over Queen City Airport

Published On: Jul 24 2012 11:42:39 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 25 2012 04:44:43 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s long effort to sell all or part of the Queen City Airport has been shot down by the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority.

The mayor was the only member of the authority board to vote against keeping the airport, which is along Lehigh Street in south Allentown.

The 13-1 roll call vote took place during a 15-minute-long authority meeting at Lehigh Valley International Airport just after noon Tuesday.

The mayor wanted the authority to sell all or part of the airport to developers to pay the authority’s legal fees and eventually generate tax revenue for the city.

The approved resolution affirms the authority’s commitment “to the continued ownership and operation of Queen City Airport,” which it states has a significant economic impact on the Lehigh Valley.

The resolution states the city’s request is denied “and all matters concerning the closure, sale and redevelopment” of that part of the airport owned by the authority “shall not be considered.”

It also states “the legal, regulatory and financial constraints to which the airport is subject make the abandonment of all or part of the airport impractical, unfeasible and cost prohibitive.”

The authority’s executive committee met Tuesday morning just before the board meeting and voted unanimously to recommend board approval of the Queen City resolution.

The resolution does not apply to that portion of Queen City owned by the city, which Pawlowski said totals 19 acres. The airport authority owns 201 acres, said airport executive director Charles Everett.

“When it comes to the property we own, the unified voice has spoken,” said authority chairman Tony Iannelli after the vote.

After the meeting, Iannelli said: “I believe the mayor’s motivation was to make his city the best city it can be. I’ve always understood that. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to give him what he wanted.”

Pawlowski called the board’s decision “very shortsighted.”

Since the city asked the authority to sell all or part of Queen City “for non-aviation commercial purposes,” the authority has received several offers from developers.

The mayor said very little undeveloped property remains along Interstate 78 and predicted the Queen City Airport land will become so valuable that “somebody is going to take a look at this again, as well they should. It could be a huge economic engine if it was developed.”

The vote was in response to a determination by the Federal Aviation Administration that a replacement airport would have to be built before Queen City could be sold.

Queen City could not be sold until a replacement airport of equal or greater value to aviation, “providing at least the same level of service” was commissioned for full use by the federal government, states a July 12 letter to the airport director from Randall Fiertz, FAA’s director of airport compliance and management analysis.

The letter states creating such an operational airport would take at least 10 years and that a new airport can’t be built at LVIA or within its air traffic area. The letter says that even a partial sale of Queen City would have to benefit civil aviation.

Before the vote, the mayor argued the FAA’s letter did not say the airport can’t be closed, “only that we have restrictions and hoops we have to jump through.” He maintained those points can be negotiated and hashed out.

Pawlowski tried to convince his board colleagues that taking any action would be premature. He suggested “pushing this off, at least for a little while, until we can get a developer to come in here to make a final determination. We should at least wait and see what the developers say and if there’s a way they can accommodate the FAA.

“For us to take this asset off the table without having all the facts in front of us would be a mistake on our part,” said the mayor.

He also told the board Queen City “is a tremendous asset for us. It’s the biggest and most expensive asset we have.” He said the airport’s land is worth $40 million to $50 million but the airport’s operation is only breaking even “in good years.” Later he said Queen City lost money or only broke even during the last nine years.

The mayor acknowledged Queen City’s proponents maintain that airport will get more business in the future. The approved resolution states 100 aircraft are based at Queen City and it provides about 80 jobs. The airport has more than 30,000 annual operations.

Pawlowski said the authority has applied for a federal grant for Queen City “to build taxiways for planes we don’t have to hangers we don’t have the money to build.” His solution was to move planes based at Queen City to LVIA and build another runaway to accommodate them. He believes the authority could have challenged the FAA.

In response to a question from another board member, authority solicitor Robert Donchez said a future authority board could reverse the resolution. Donchez explained the resolution means it is the policy of the current board to no longer explore selling or developing Queen City. “Certainly policies can be revisited or changed in the future.”

If the authority keeps Queen City, recommended Pawlowski before the vote, it should look into a long-term lease of that airport to a private operator as another way to make “desperately” needed revenue -- “similar to what we are doing with some of our sewer and water facilities.” He said that would maximize “potential revenue and relieve ourselves of some of the costs.”

After the meeting, Iannelli said the mayor’s suggestion will be added to a pile of suggested remedies being considered by the authority to alleviate its debt.
The authority looked into the possibility of selling Queen City as a way to pay off a $16-million lawsuit. Iannelli indicated it only has about two years to pay that off. He said selling other properties owned by the authority is one option and floating a bond to pay the debt is another.

Beyond using the sale of Queen City to pay off the legal debt, the mayor questioned where the authority will get $10 million for other improvements needed at LVIA, which he called the region’s “economic engine.”

According to the resolution, Queen City has operated as a public airport since 1943. It was turned over to the city by the federal government with deed restrictions that the land be used solely for public airport purposes. The city turned it over to the airport authority in 2000.