Monday, February 19, 2018
News Roundup

Official denies that company wanting to lease Hernando airport facility is being discouraged

BROOKSVILLE — The impromptu presentation at Tuesday's Hernando County Commission meeting normally would have been a commissioner's dream.

Bradley Dye stood at the microphone, saying he wanted to expand his successful and growing business into Hernando County, spend money and hire more employees.

He wanted to lease the now-defunct Brooksville Air Center site, which the county recently purchased at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

He would open as a second fixed-base operator at the airport but wouldn't steal the existing operator's clients. Instead, Dye said, he would bring some of his existing 100 corporate clients to Brooksville, open a flight school and increase current operations at the airport by 30 percent.

Dye, of Corporate Jet Solutions Inc. of Clearwater, was so confident that he was willing to tie his company's lease to benchmarks it would have to reach.

But Dye also had another message for the commission, which has made economic development and broadening the tax base a priority: He was frustrated because the county seemed to be standing in his way.

Without specifying who, he said that someone apparently was concerned that his business would be unwanted competition for the longtime fixed-base operator at the airport, American Aviation.

"We've been discouraged to be a fixed-base operator,'' Dye told the commission.

In an interview with the Times, airport manager Don Silvernell denied that anyone was trying to keep Dye out of Hernando and said he had been honest in his negotiations with Dye in recent weeks.

The county's Aviation Authority was reluctant to grant approval for another fixed-base operator, he said. The last one — the company that built the Brooksville Air Center — failed. And if there is not enough business for two, the Federal Aviation Administration allows an airport to deny a second, he said.

Silvernell said he uses the yardstick used by companies that buy up fixed-base operations at outlying airports. They won't look at one that doesn't sell at least 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of airplane fuel a year. Hernando sells between 600,000 and 650,000 gallons, with American Aviation accounting for most of that.

At a regional average cost of about $7 a gallon, airplane fuel is a multimillion-dollar business for fixed-base operators.

Silvernell said he and county business development manager Michael McHugh grilled Dye and his son, Tony, who is the owner of the company. Silvernell said he wanted them to be prepared to defend their business plan before other county and airport officials.

"We were tough on them coming in,'' Silvernell acknowledged. "We didn't want them to be blindsided.''

• • •

Two weeks ago, Dye went before the Hernando County Aviation Authority, ready to talk about his plans and hoping to get the green light to move forward and negotiate with the county for the air center lease.

The day before the meeting, Silvernell got a phone call from the president of American Aviation, John Petrick. Petrick, who has been in business at the airport for more than 30 years, asked what update Silvernell would be giving the Aviation Authority regarding the air center property.

Silvernell said he was going to ask the authority for permission to begin to draw up paperwork to lease the property. Petrick informed Silvernell that he had an interest and ended up formalizing that with a letter of intent to lease the property.

At the meeting, Silvernell announced that a second party — American Aviation — had come forward.

The authority agreed to accept the written proposals early next month and scheduled a meeting for June 13 to hear them and prepare a recommendation to the County Commission.

Between the Aviation Authority meeting and last week's County Commission meeting, something changed.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said a constituent was concerned about the way Corporate Jet Solutions was treated at the Aviation Authority meeting the previous week. He said he wanted to hear more about the company's proposal.

After hearing about Dye's concerns, so did two other commissioners. They asked for formal presentations to the County Commission by both parties on May 28.

American Aviation's attorney, Robert Morris, happened upon the discussion and told commissioners that circumventing the Aviation Authority review "would not be appropriate.''

A special meeting of the authority has been called for 3 p.m. Thursday to hear the companies' presentations and make a recommendation.

• • •

The move by county commissioners upset members of the Aviation Authority, including Chairman Gary Schraut.

Schraut said the commission's action was "extremely disrespectful'' to the volunteers who comprise the authority. In addition, moving up the time line means neither the authority nor the commission may get a complete picture of the companies' business plans.

While Dye has a presentation already prepared, Petrick told officials it would take him several weeks to get his plan together.

Dukes was not apologetic about rocking the boat. He told the Times that the authority works for the commission and added that there have been questions about whether Petrick's company charges too much for fuel, possibly indicating why American Aviation does not want competition. At the recent Aviation Authority meeting, member Jeff West said that 50 percent of the planes at the Hernando buy fuel elsewhere.

"It's all starting to smell a bit, and I don't like this,'' Dukes said. "I'm not going to put my name on something that didn't follow the proper procedure.''

Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he didn't favor shortening the time line for hearing the lease proposals. He also said that the failure of the last fixed-base operator must be considered.

"We need to be very careful how we proceed here," Russell said. "There is precedence for failure."

Commissioner Diane Rowden said the commission cannot judge the case based on someone else's failure, or on emotion.

"Our special interest here is the taxpayer and the people of Hernando County,'' Rowden said. "They expect us to promote business and promote competition, too. Competition is a good thing. You're going to help our taxpayers and you're going to improve our tax base.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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