Follow-up on Braden Airpark and Queen City Airport
About a year ago (HN eNewsletter May 2014) we reported on Braden Airpark (N43) in Easton, PA, and how it narrowly avoided closure when its owner, Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority (LNAA), voted against a motion to close it and instead formed an ad hoc committee to research and formulate a preservation plan.
Since then, a number of events have occurred which have stabilized the situation and eased the fears of pilots and other parties interested in keeping Braden operating along with Queen City Airport (KXLL) in Allentown.
First let’s rewind to see how things got to such a dire point for Braden:
The saga of LNAA’s troubles – and subsequently Braden’s – began innocuously enough in the late 1980s when C. Thomas Fuller sold a 632-acre parcel of the family farmland to a group of investors known as Willow Brook Farms (WBF). WBF had big plans – they were going to build a 1,500-home residential development complete with tennis courts, a golf course, driving range, retail center, and walking trails.
Unbeknownst to WBF, the LNAA and its then-Executive Director George Doughty were buying land around the WBF parcel with the intention of doubling the airport’s area to 2,300 acres and adding another runway.
When the airport’s expansion plans were announced in 1994, some of WBF’s investors pulled out because their proposed development was within the expansion zone and likely subject to condemnation.
New investors could not be found, and WBF sued the airport authority in 1996.
In 1998, Lehigh County Court ruled that the airport’s expansion plans were tantamount to an eminent domain confiscation of the 632 acres and that the airport had to pay the investors for the property.
The ruling was upheld in Commonwealth Court the following year. Thus began a series of appeals and property-value haggling that lasted until 2009, when a Pennsylvania court made a ruling denying the final appeal and imposing a $24 million judgment against the airport authority.
While the court case dragged on, the authority’s primary operation, Lehigh Valley International Airport (KABE) was losing traffic, passengers, and revenue, mostly due to the onset of the economic recession. LNAA was struggling to meet its normal obligations, let alone make payments to satisfy the court judgment, so it began to look at its assets more closely with an eye to selling some off to raise money.
Besides Lehigh Valley International, the LNAA owns both Braden Airpark and Queen City Airport, and since ABE is the authority’s top priority, the smaller airports came under intense scrutiny as potentially available to be sold off.
In the newsletter article we detailed the history of Braden and how its tenants and users, along with the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association (LVGAA), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) joined forces to try to save the airpark.
The EAA Chapter 70 sponsors the Civil Air Patrol, the Boy Scouts, and Young Eagles at Braden, and in September 2014 they held a fly-in to raise public awareness and support for the airpark.
Selling the airpark would put the airport authority in further difficulty regardless of whether it was sold to a pilots group or a party interested in developing the property into a retail, office, or residential center.
The pilots group submitted an offer of $1.8 million, less than the $3 million needed to pay off the airport’s debt. Selling to a redeveloper would likely have required a zoning change as well as triggering a requirement to repay up to an additional $3 million in state grants used to maintain the airport.
The airport authority’s ad hoc committee realized that both choices would leave them further in debt and so, being stuck between a rock and a hard place, they decided to delay the sale and keep operating Braden at a loss until another solution was found.
And then, finally, a solution did materialize: In February of this year, the LNAA entered into an agreement to sell 260 acres of airport land to the Rockefeller Group of New York, NY, for $9.9 million. When finalized, the deal will provide the financially strapped authority with the ability to pay the last $7.2 million installment on its legal debt due in November, and leave some money in the bank as well.
The land deal, while imminent but not yet closed, will end more than four years of financial stress on the airport authority, and at the same time relieves the pressure to sell both Braden and Queen City.
So at least for the time being, Braden and Queen City are not under the threat of closure. However there still remains the issue of bringing both to a state of operating profitably.
And, in another interesting turn, the surplus of funds also removes the need for the airport to sell an additional 298-acre parcel, which had been in negotiation. The airport is now considering keeping the lot and developing it on its own.
Which brings us full-circle back to what we at Hangar Network have been observing and talking about more and more lately – the recent trend of airports turning into entrepreneurs-developers-landlords as a means of generating more revenue through non-aviation activities.
We will definitely be exploring this topic more closely moving forward.
-Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association