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Critics fear fallout from airport authority lawsuit

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

BRIDGEPORT -- In the first such response to a controversy surrounding the Benedum Airport Authority, two businessmen said Friday they fear disaster if the authority wins a lawsuit against the state.

"Unless there's a change, you are going to see but very little federal or state money coming in, and it may die," said Chip Cone.

Cone owns Greenwood Land Inc., a land-holding company that is leasing out 40 acres adjacent to the recently renamed Harrison-Marion Regional Airport. An unnamed business will open there this summer that may require taxiway access.

He was responding to a lawsuit the authority filed Thursday in an effort to block a state law that would restructure the board as of July 1. The new board will have several members that will represent the state, the city of Bridgeport and aviation interests.

Chuck Koukoulis, president of KCI Aviation, also responded Friday. He agreed an authority change would be good for the airport. His flight training, maintenance and air support business leases space there, and his family has had a business there for decades.

"My growth and existence is entirely in their hands," Koukoulis said of the authority. "It's all jeopardized because the message that's being sent to these companies is hostile."

He was referring to a number of aviation-related businesses that ring the airport and employ about 1,200.

Cone believes the current authority is lacking in two areas: First, he said members have so many connections to municipalities, counties and other boards, that conflicts of interest arise.

Ironically, the lawsuit alleges the new board would have similar conflicts because it would include three members from the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex, which has business interests in aviation. Koukoulis is a board member of that federally funded agency, which markets the airport.

Secondly, Cone believes the current board lacks the technical business and aviation-related expertise needed to effectively handle large aviation interests such as Pratt Whitney and Bombardier.

Del. Barbara Warner, D-Harrison, a key sponsor of the bill in question, has said she was motivated by a desire to modernize the authority for such development purposes.

Friday, she said the current authority has been slow moving, uncooperative and nearly lost growth opportunities with both Pratt Whitney and Fairmont State College as a result.

Authority officials have previously denied such charges, saying paperwork slowdowns between the authority and a federal agency were at fault in those cases.

"We need people who have experience in the industry and people who have a general knowledge of how to work in the global economy," Warner said of why she hopes the lawsuit fails.

Other reaction to the lawsuit was not as negative, however.

Kent Carper, a Kanawha County commissioner and spokesperson for the Yeager Airport board, released a statement Friday saying he supports the local authority.

"This sets a dangerous precedent and I'm concerned with the methods used by the statehouse in this situation," Carper said of the new law.

"Under this scenario, the state could take over virtually any public entity with a majority vote of the Legislature, whether it be a city swimming pool or a county 4-H camp."

Yeager Airport authorities in Kanawha County have expressed concern that the state wants to stymie them in favor of a regional airport to be located elsewhere in that area.

Benedum Airport Authority attorneys will ask Kanawha County Circuit Judge Herman Canady for a temporary injunction to stop the new law from restructuring the board July 1. The authority wants the judge to permanently stop the law, as well. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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