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Supporters of Braden Airpark given 120 days to arrange deal to purchase it from airport authority

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 13 2013 06:51:08 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 15 2013 06:24:50 AM CDT

Future of Braden Airpark up in the air

Supporters of Braden Airpark have 120 days to put together a deal to purchase it from Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority.

The small airpark in Forks Township is the only general aviation airport in Northampton County.

The airport authority decided to give pilots and others who want to save the airport  time to buy it during a special meeting Thursday.

The authority wants to sell Braden and other properties to help pay off an estimated $16 million legal judgment that ended a lawsuit in 2011.

Supporters want the 74-acre property, once known as Easton Airport, to remain an active general aviation airport serving the township and Northampton County.

The 120-day deal is reasonable, said Mike Rosenfeld, president of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association. He hopes members of the airport authority won't just view it as "a stay of execution" for Braden.

"We need their help to market this airport," said Rosenfeld.  "We need their cooperation and they have pledged that."

Fearing the authority intended to vote to sell Braden, an estimated 65 to 70 supporters showed up at the special meeting Thursday afternoon.  Rosenfeld said it was the largest public turn-out he's ever seen at an airport authority meeting and is certain it stopped any move to sell off the Braden property.

Rosenfeld said the airport authority initially called its special meeting only to act on a settlement agreement for the Allentown fire training facility next to Queen City Airport. 

He said Braden Airpark was added to the meeting agenda as a discussion item only a few days ago and his organization learned the authority might vote to close Braden at that meeting. The large turn-out "absolutely" stopped any sale, he said, adding there also had been a letter-writing campaign.

Rosenfeld is certain Braden can be sold as an airport to another owner/operator who can make it financially successful. He prefers it not remain in the hands of the airport authority.

"Why close it without first exploring the possibility of finding someone to own and operate it?" asked Rosenfeld.

Erik Chuss, chairman of the Forks Township supervisors and an aircraft owner and pilot who uses Braden, called the airport authority's action "very positive."

"Additional time is needed to allow all stakeholders to get together, verify financial data, assess the situation and make the best decision  for the future of the airport," said Chuss.

Chuss added it's unclear whether 120 days will be enough time, "but it should be enough to at least identify viable alternatives."

Chuss said 60 to 70 planes were based at Braden until May, when its fixed-base operator -- Moyer Aviation -- pulled out, because it was unable to arrange a long-term lease with the airport authority. Moyer was operating on a monthly lease.

Chuss said now less than 40 planes remain at Braden.

"I'm glad they didn't rush into a decision," said Paul Braden, whose family owned and operated the airport for more than 60 years before it was sold to the airport authority in 1999. "It gives an extension of time for supporters to see what they can do."

Braden, a Lutheran minister who flies a plane based at Braden, said it was started by his father Eddie Braden in 1938.

Braden said preserving the small airport  "is not purely a business decision."

Charles Everett, the authority's executive director, said an appraisal has been done regarding Braden's value but declined to disclose that figure.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who serves on the authority board, has said Braden is worth about $4 million. But Braden said "they would be lucky if they can get $1 million or $2 million for it."

Chuss said the 120-day extension also will give the airport authority staff time to look into repaying money to the state. He said when Braden was purchased by the authority in 1999, half the $2.4 million sale price was covered by a state grant. "They may have to pay some of it back."

Braden said the airport authority has determined Braden needs $450,000 in capital improvements within the next year and almost $2 million in improvements within the next five years. "I question whether all that money needs to be spent in that short a time," he said.

Responding to those estimates, Rosenfeld said: "That was ridiculous. Braden does not need $2 million in improvements."

Braden said the airport would have to be rezoned before it could be sold for other purposes. He doesn't think Forks Township or Northampton County could afford to buy it. Chuss said the county's economic development office  is looking into ways the airport can remain in operation.

Chuss said several months ago Forks Township's supervisors passed a resolution requesting the airport authority to meet with them before making any decision to sell Braden.

Rosenfeld objected to someone on the airport board saying Braden is only used by 260 wealthy people. He said his organization has about 180 members, including pilots who fly in and out of Braden. "But not all our members are pilots, not all of them own airplanes and I guarantee you not all of them are rich."

Members of Chapter 70 of the Experimental Aircraft Association who are based at Braden also attended the meeting to show their support and prevent any vote to sell the property.