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Widow's plea works; fuel decision dropped

(ran PC edition)

As a woman seeks to save her business, Zephyrhills rescinds a decision giving the city exclusive fuel-selling rights on airport property.

Two months after her husband was killed in a freak plane crash, Kathleen Sullivan is fighting to save the business he built up over 25 years at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.

She wants to save Aerocenter Inc., she said Tuesday, because she wants to sell it for a fair price.

And so, on Monday night, Sullivan appeared before the City Council and, with anger in her voice, asked members to reverse their unanimous decision two weeks ago that she said is crippling her fuel sales business.

In a move that caught airport manager Jim Werme by surprise, council members bowed to Sullivan's request. They unanimously agreed to rescind their decision that temporarily gave the city the exclusive right to sell fuel on airport property.

For Sullivan, it was a victory that she said would make Aerocenter more attractive for any prospective buyer. She hasn't officially put the business up for sale, but she said she has offered it to the city for $1-million.

"I'm continuing as we were until, at some time in the future, I find a buyer," she said Tuesday. "I don't have to sell. But I wish to sell."

The city has expressed interest, although talk of a price will have to wait until an appraisal is done.

"We are interested in purchasing the property," City Attorney Thomas McAlvanah said Tuesday.

Aerocenter, just off city property at the airport, continued to sell fuel legally after the council's decision two weeks ago. But she couldn't drive fuel trucks onto the tarmac and fill up planes on city land.

Sullivan said her business also has suffered when pilots called in before landing, asked where they could buy fuel and were told only about the city's pumps.

"The (diminished) fuel sales would hurt the value of the business," Sullivan said.

David Sullivan died June 25 when his Beechcraft King Air BE-90 fell from the sky about 30 miles northeast of Pensacola. With his death, Aerocenter lost a large portion of its revenue: David Sullivan also operated an air taxi and air ambulance service. He was the company's only pilot.

Besides fuel tanks, Aerocenter has a 24,000-square-foot facility on the 4 acres it leases from the city. Inside the building are a hangar and living quarters. Kathleen Sullivan still lives there, but she said she's ready to move when the business sells.

But she said she has no plans to leave Zephyrhills.

Council members hinted Monday that they might vote sometime in the future to give the city exclusive fuel sales rights at the airport, especially if the Federal Aviation Administration requires it.

Werme said the airport has grown to the point where it's now eligible for FAA grants. And it was the FAA, he said, that recommended back in January that the city claim exclusive fuel sales rights for itself.

"There are procedures that we have to do," he said. "And this actually started months ago."

But, he conceded, "I can understand how, in her eyes, this seems like bad timing."

The city and the FAA are expected to sit down in the coming weeks to talk about a set of minimum standards, or list of basic guidelines, by which the airport would be governed in the future.