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Airport authority proposed

May 14, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

The Borough of Chambersburg wants out of the airport business and a group of aviation-related businesses and pilots has proposed forming an airport authority that would take over ownership and operation of Chambersburg Municipal Airport.

"We are asking that you consider sponsoring us, if we can produce a sound business plan, in the formation of an airport authority," Kathie Sides of Chambersburg Skydiving Center said at Tuesday night's Chambersburg Borough Council meeting.

Approximately 30 supporters were present at Tuesday night's council meeting as Sides made the pitch for the creation of the authority, which would own and operate the airport. The group, which does not have a name, asked for the council to make a decision by its May 27 meeting.

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In the meantime, Sides said the group will meet today with Greene Township, Pa., officials to discuss the idea of that municipality serving as either a sponsor or a co-sponsor for an authority. The group also plans to meet with Franklin County officials for discussions on the same topic.

The 93-acre airport property is in Greene Township. Built in the late 1960s, it has a 3,300-foot paved runway.

"Instead of them selling it off to the highest bidder, we're asking them to transfer it to an authority," J.R. Sides, the owner of Chambersburg Skydiving Center, said earlier in the day. Sides said the group has already had talks with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration officials and "We've got total support from those guys."

Kathie Sides told the council that group members met with Sharon Daboin, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's deputy secretary of aviation, who advised them to come up with a five-year business plan for the airport. They also have been in contact with an investment firm to discuss financing and with a law firm experienced in airport authority issues.

Hangar rentals and other fees could support the daily operations of the airport and, if an authority were created, the airport would be eligible for grants through the federal Airport Improvement Plan, according to Kathie Sides.

One reason the borough intends to sell the airport is that, by the end of this year, it will no longer be required to repay any of the grants it received over the years to extend the runway and make other improvements.

There are other hurdles for the group to clear, including the discovery of a large underground fuel tank that could pose environmental cleanup problems.

"There's some exciting things that can happen involving fuel tanks," said Thomas Finucane, the borough's attorney. Most of those things, he said, were not good.

Another company has a hangar on the property and eight years remaining on its lease and there was some question about whether there is a buyout clause in the lease.

A land survey would have to be conducted to determine which parcels of the airport were purchased with state, federal or local funds, Kathie Sides said. Finucane said that might not be necessary, since the borough is under no obligation to refund any grants after the end of the year.

An appraisal of the property would have to be done to determine its fair market value, Finucane said. Assistant Borough Manager David Finch said Monday the borough would want at least fair market value if it transferred the airport to an authority.

"I think it's all well and good there's an airport out there, as long as there are no ties that bind it to Chambersburg," Council President William F. McLaughlin said. "The borough of Chambersburg has been in the airport business long enough."

"The last authority Chambersburg got involved with was the transit authority," McLaughlin said of the entity that runs the public buses in Chambersburg and surrounding communities. The Chambersburg Transit Authority in March cut most of its bus routes and employees because of financial setbacks.

Councilman John A. Redding suggested the county government would be the proper body to set up an authority.

"Are you giving us a flat out no tonight?" Kathie Sides asked.

Several council members indicated they want to see the five-year business plan before making a decision.

Other organizations that J.R. Sides said endorse the plan include the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association, the U.S. Ultralight Association and the U.S. Parachute Association.

Sides, who also is the airport's manager, described the airport as a "ghost town" with few flights when he bought Chambersburg Skydiving Center five years ago. Since his business began providing management on a day-to-day basis, he said the facility has had a "dramatic increase" in flights.

Air traffic varies from a few flights a day to up to 50 or more, he said. In addition to his skydiving business, he said there are two other aircraft maintenance and service businesses at the airport.

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