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Airline proposal faces turbulence

January 15, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Greenbrier County man who is proposing to start a new airline in Berkeley County recently tried to purhase a charter air service near Lewisburg, W.Va., but the deal never materialized.

Samuel DeLee, president of the Fairlee, W.Va.-based Corporate Assets Resources Development, asked the Berkeley County Commission Thursday for backing in his effort to aquire a Florida airline and relocate it to the Eastern Panhandle.

Last year, DeLee told economic development officials in Greenbrier County, W.Va., that he was trying to buy a small charter air service there. DeLee wanted to buy Greenbrier Valley Aviation and start a charter service in Lewisburg, officials said.

But Stanley M. Leist, owner of Greenbrier Valley Aviation, said DeLee inaccurately told officials that Leist had agreed to put up his assets to secure financing for DeLee's proposal.

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Leist said he did not pledge any assets for the deal, and wrote a letter to the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation saying he had no business relationship with DeLee.

"All in all, I would want nothing to do with Mr. DeLee's aviation plans whatsoever," Leist said Friday.

Leist said he never heard from DeLee again after he wrote the letter.

On Thursday, DeLee appeared before the Berkeley County Commissioners to propose a $132 million buyout of an Orlando, Fla., airline known as AirTran and moving the operation to the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport.

DeLee wants the commissioners to consider authorizing a $4.5 million bond to help finance the beginning of the new daily flight service called Skyy Airlines that would connect Martinsburg with major cities like Atlanta, Kansas City, New York, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. DeLee said his company would be responsible for repayment of the entire $4.5 million bond and that the county would not be asked to bear any of the risks.

The project would also involve building a new 10,000-square-foot terminal and a 351-acre headquarters in Berkeley County, said DeLee.

Leist said DeLee approached him several months ago about buying his small charter flight and aircraft brokerage business.

Leist said DeLee gave him a "fairly solid offer. But he didn't have anything to back it up."

DeLee also was considering buying a former manufacturing plant near the Greenbrier Valley Airport near Lewisburg, but could not get local funding, said Marti Marshal, administrative assistant of the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation.

DeLee went to the development corporation for financial assistance and told agency officials that Leist had agreed to put up his assets to secure a deal, according to Marshal and Leist.

In his Nov. 12 letter to the development corporation, Leist said he did not agree with DeLee's aviation concepts.

"We have no business relationship with Mr. DeLee and as of tomorrow, I am writing him a letter saying not to use either my name or the company's name in any way whatsoever," Leist said in the letter.

"It was a pretty angry letter," Marshal said.

DeLee could not be reached for comment Friday.

Berkeley County Commission President D. Wayne Dunham said DeLee asked to be put on the agenda for the commissioners' meeting Thursday, but there was little information about what he was proposing.

Dunham said DeLee's timetable for completing the project seems short considering what is planned. DeLee said he would like to bring a bond proposal to the commissioners within 30 days, and possibly begin construction by April, said Dunham.

"He's acting like he's on the fast track," Dunham said.

County administrator Deborah Sheetenhelm said it was unique that DeLee presented his proposal in an open session. Usually businesses that are thinking of locating in the area want to remain anonymous while they are talking with government officials, said Sheetenhelm.

"Everything discussed yesterday (Thursday) was conceptual. That doesn't mean the commissioners will endorse the project," Sheetenhelm said.

Rick Wachtel, chairman of the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority, said DeLee's proposal could be different from the one he proposed in Greenbrier County.

"He seemed to have a very good concept. Certainly anyone who comes in, we want to give (them) a fair opportunity to display their wares. We just haven't seen their wares," said Wachtel.

"The key is whether he can put together the total financing package," said Bob Crawford, executive director of the Berkeley County Development Authority, who introduced DeLee to the commissioners Thursday.

Officials at AirTran said they have no knowledge of an attempted buyout by DeLee.

AirTran spokeswoman Kara Maruskin said the company is not going to comment on "these rumors."

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