Connellsville airport's future concerns many
Two members of the Fayette County Airport Authority and its solicitor expressed concerns on Wednesday about maintaining airport safety, continuing day-to-day operations and complying with FAA regulations and grant requirements in the wake of a recent shake-up.
The shake-up has resulted in the furlough of airport manager Mary Lou Fast and the resignation of Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger during a politically charged controversy that has generated many rumors surrounding the operation of the Joseph A. Hardy Connellsville Airport in Dunbar Township.
Authority board members Jesse Wallace and Myrna Giannopoulos met with authority solicitor Gretchen Mundorff and Russell L. Jones, a representative of PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation, during a one-hour work session to discuss the airport's future.
No action could be taken at the meeting because authority members Fred Davis and Matt Thomas did not attend.
Since the layoff of the airport manager, Giannopoulos has volunteered her time and talents to assume administrative and managerial responsibilities until the authority can hire a new airport manager.
“The airport is a great place, but right now we're stumbling,” Wallace said. “We will rise above this and get back on our feet. I want to see this airport grow and prosper.”
Wallace said the airport is very important to Fayette County.
“To let this facility wither on a vine would be a disservice to the entire community,” Wallace said.
Giannopoulos agreed, indicating that she has a vested interest in keeping the airport afloat because her husband, Jerry, has an airplane and rents hangar space at the facility.
In order to keep the airport operating properly, Wallace said, authority members need to develop a “plan of action.”
Giannopoulos said she will volunteer to manage the facility on a day-to-day basis from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday when she will pay the bills, complete the payroll, communicate with the FAA, supervise employees and advise authority members of problems or issues that may arise. She will not receive any compensation.
“This airport is close to my heart, and I want to make sure that it survives and thrives,” Giannopoulos said.
Mundorff expressed concerns about the authority working to resolve FAA findings uncovered in a recent audit. One of the findings focused on the airport's lack of signed leases with tenants.
Although Mundorff drafted those leases about a year ago, many airport and hangar tenants have not yet signed those documents.
“This is a serious issue,” Mundorff said. “If we don't get the leases signed and returned, federal funding could be in peril. The board needs to take action.”
Jones said he agreed with Mundorff's statement.
Authority members said they are hoping the Fayette County commissioners appoint a replacement for Shallenberger at their next meeting on Feb. 19.
The authority will hold its regular meeting the following day when board members can begin the process of advertising for a new airport manager. Fast earned a salary of about $60,000 a year in that position.
“It's going to be difficult to find someone who is willing to do what Mary Lou (Fast) did for the salary we are willing to pay,” Wallace said.
Mundorff said authority members need to develop a job description that can be advertised on a local, state and even national level.
Authority members and the solicitor denied they have any knowledge of rumors indicating that Becky Ambrosini, wife of Fayette County Commissioner Al Ambrosini, plans to apply for the position. Ambrosini, a longtime nurse and hospital administrator, was recently laid off from her executive position of vice president of professional services at the Uniontown Hospital.
Al Ambrosini has said the rumors are untrue, saying that his wife decided to retire and has no interest in the position. The Ambrosinis, who are both pilots, own an airplane and rent hangar space at the airport.
Wallace, Giannopoulos and Mundorff said they have no knowledge of any political pressure that was placed on either Fast or Shallenberger that led to the furlough and resignation.
“We haven't heard anything about that,” Wallace said. “You would need to talk to Mary Lou and Tuffy to see what they have to say.”
Cindy Ekas is a freelance writer.