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Rock Airport struggles to take off

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Private planes are parked at Rock Airport in Frazer Township on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Private planes are parked at Rock Airport in Frazer Township on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
A privately-owned plane sits on the runway at Rock Airport in Frazer Township on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
The runway as seen from a privately-owned plane at Rock Airport in Frazer Township on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.

There may finally be some light at the end of the runway for Rock Airport and Business Park, where the owner and aviation officials are considering an estimated $5 million expansion for small-jet traffic.

But first, the airport, in West Deer and Indiana townships, has to emerge from bankruptcy.

Rock Ferrone, the owner of the airport and business park, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, but he and his attorney say that they expect to emerge from bankruptcy within the next six months.

The airport and business park has been facing a foreclosure action by Huntingdon National Bank, which has a $3.3 million claim. Other creditors include the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, $1.74 million; and First Commonwealth Bank, $525,974.

The attorney representing the bank, William Price of Clark Hill Thorp Reed, declined to comment on Rock's bankruptcy status.

A number of legal issues are in play, including access to the business park's power grid. The Valley News Dispatch's owner, Trib Total Media Inc., is among the park's businesses involved in the dispute.

It's unclear whether Ferrone or another owner will take the airport, which caters to small aircraft, to the next level: corporate jet traffic, a coveted and growing business segment, according to aviation industry experts.

“There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm when I presented the original plans for this airport in Harrisburg,” Ferrone said.“If I can get that back, I'd like to take the airport plans to fruition.

“But if I'm going to have a struggle at every corner, I'd prefer someone else take it over and take it to where it needs to go.”

That may very well happen, as the airport and surrounding parcels are for sale for $8.5 million for the airport and 253 acres, according to Gregg Broujos, managing director with Colliers International, the broker for the property.

Colliers is trying to sell the entire park or just parcels for prices ranging from $30,000 to $60,000 an acre, according to Broujos.

“We think it's a fair price, given easy access to Route 28 to Pittsburgh — this will be an incredible upgrade in a year when the Route 28 project is finished.

“That's going to be huge, because it will be a quick easy trip right to the city.”

Potential buyers are interested in a longer runway for small jet traffic.

The selling point, Broujos said, “is the potential of what it can be: a true airpark.”

Ferrone has yet to reach his goal of a 5,000-foot runway — the current one is 3,550 feet long — to support jet traffic and attract more businesses to the airport's business park. His original plan called for the 5,000-foot runway and a business park that would bring in about 4,000 new jobs.

“I think that there's a total (of) between 800 and 1,000 jobs in the park,” he said.

Jet traffic could propel the airport to reach its full potential, according to Ferrone.

Throughout the bankruptcy, operations at the airport have continued with air traffic from mostly personal and small corporate planes and a business park with five tenants: Two construction firms, Zambrano Corp. and the Joseph Fay Co.; business consultant Management Science Associates Inc. (MSA); Ferrone's Rock-Built In-Line Finishing Systems, Inc.; and a Trib Total Media printing and distribution plant.

“It's always been business as usual,” said John E. Marino of Harrison, president of the Deer Lakes Pilots Club. “(There's) a lot of state and federal money in that project, and I don't foresee that airport going away.”

Rock Airport has received more than $16 million in state and Allegheny County grants and loans plus private investments, according to Ferrone.

Can't get off the ground

The airport is weathering several legal actions, including a squabble over the use of the airport's power grid.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Judith K. Fitzgerald ordered MSA to complete its own power grid on the site by May 31 of this year, or its power “will be shut off.”

Ferrone and MSA are in court trying to agree on a route for a new electrical line through the airport property to MSA.

Since the bankruptcy, “there has been a history of litigation and acrimony,” said attorney Robert Lampl, who represents Ferrone. “We have a meeting of the minds with the bank. The debtor and the bank are resolving their differences.”

But not soon enough for Ferrone.

“Clearly, the bankruptcy stalled all plans and state involvement,” Ferrone said. “The state is interested in seeing the airport out of bankruptcy before they fund it.”

Ferrone met with PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation several weeks ago to discuss the expansion of the runway.

Erin Waters-Trasatt, PennDOT deputy press secretary, confirmed that PennDOT staff met with Ferrone to plan for the department's four-year program.

“Before the extension project could be explored, the airport would have to supply us with a justification and likely complete a study on it,” she said.

According to Ferrone, he already has secured some crucial nods for the expansion, including environmental impact approval.

“From the time we emerge from bankruptcy, I expect that we can bring the runway project to its completion within two years,” he said. “But it will take full cooperation of existing of creditors and all the parties involved.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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