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Development of Benedum a factor in reconfiguring airport author

by James Fisher

STAFF WRITER

While no single issue has been put forth as the reason for the state Legislature to restructure the Benedum Airport Authority, efforts to develop and market the airport complex may have been the catalyst.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex staff -- which is federally funded to provide marketing for the airport complex -- is expected to perform its duties. To sell or lease property to potential developers is one of the main issues.

While no formal discussions apparently have occurred, it appears that issue may have contributed to the Legislature's efforts to reconfigure the board. House Bill 3252 would significantly alter the authority's makeup, giving MAAC three seats on an 11-member board.

Executive Director Jim Skidmore said Saturday that MAAC would like to lease properties, but that each situation must be dealt with as it comes. Some companies may want to lease and some may want to buy and a blanket policy is not effective.

"We don't want to take a hard line. This is a very competitive market and we don't believe that's the way you can do things," he said. "It could limit our ability to market (the airport)"

Skidmore said some companies might not even consider locating in an area if a sale is not possible. He said he has seen companies "pack up and leave town" in such a situation.

Authority President Roger Diaz says those issues have not been discussed with the authority. He said the policy is to not sell land inside the airport's fenced area. Diaz said if MAAC, or any other group, had concerns with the airport's marketing efforts, it should have brought them to the board for open discussion.

"They never contacted us," Diaz said. "We've drawn no line in the sand. There's been no formal proposal brought to the authority and there's been no discussion of potential developers who were interested in buying property."

Diaz said leasing the land usually is in the best interest for both the airport and the businesses.

"If the airport sells, you get a one-time payment and that money goes toward retiring infrastructure debt. It has to, according to the agreement," Diaz said. "If we lease the property, it gives us revenue to operate the airport over a period of many years."

Income is important since the airport has limited revenue sources, Diaz said. The authority's current budget shows just $560,000 of income and more than $480,000 in expenses. Of the income, more than $300,000 is derived from property rentals.

He also said leasing is usually in the best interest of the prospective business, since it wouldn't have to pay taxes except for personal property used in the operation.

Del. Barbara Warner, D-Harrison, has said the current authority structure is not effective and cited a deal with Fairmont State College as an example.

Fairmont State College wanted 10 acres to expand its Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, she said. In exchange, the authority wanted the state Infrastructure Council to forgive about $350,000 in debt.

Warner said the authority reacted slowly and wouldn't release the acreage until the debt was forgiven. She wanted to deed the property and then work on forgiving the debt.

Authority President Roger Diaz says the authority didn't want to proceed until the debt was forgiven.

"If we gave up the land, and the debt wasn't forgiven, it would have been applied to the rest of the parcels and driven up the price on those to the point we couldn't have sold or leased them," Diaz said.

As for marketing, MAAC officials say they currently are working on several new projects worth more than $50 million. The projects could mean thousands of new jobs, they say.

MAAC believes the only way for these projects to move forward is to "streamline our systems of economic response and delivery," which they say the new legislation will do.

"Our job is not to run an airport. Our job is to market the facility, create jobs, build buildings and keep the companies here," Skidmore said.

Diaz says that MAAC officials have not signed any new leases or brought in any new tenants in the last three years. He also says no prospects have been brought before the board and questions how they can say the authority is impeding progress.

Skidmore said MAAC officials are frustrated because they have not been contacted about several recent proposed compromises that would make the legislative changes moot. Diaz said the authority's executive committee has authorized him to propose changing the board's makeup to three members from each county and four recommended by MAAC.

As of 6 p.m. Saturday, Diaz had not heard from U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan about the proposal. He is working with the congressman to broker the deal since Mollohan has been so instrumental in the region's aerospace development.

A former airport manager and aviation business owner said he believes putting more aerospace-conscious people on the board is a good move. Angelo Koukoulis said he believes commissioners and the authority should have been kept abreast of the situation. However, he said he believes the situation would be better resolved with cooperation.

"The counties are taking this the wrong way," he said. "Instead of the entities battling, they should be working together. Let's forget about pride of authorship and this parochial type of thinking. Everybody needs to sit down and eliminate the animosity and see what type of development can occur."

Staff writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com

Staff members Jeff Toquinto, Bob Shaw and John G. Miller contributed to this story.

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