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Connellsville Airport will be renamed in honor of Hardy

| Sunday, March 4, 2007

A golfer, a congressman and an actor.

Joe Hardy, the founder of 84 Lumber, is joining some elite company in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In reaffirming a decision to rename the Connellsville Airport in honor of Hardy, the Fayette County Airport Authority has lifted the 84-year-old businessman to a stature shared by links legend and Youngstown native Arnold Palmer, U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha and Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart.

While the name change in Fayette pays homage to a benefactor, officials at the other airports offer differing opinions as to whether a new moniker has any effect on the daily business operations.

But the employees of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, Indiana County-Jimmy Stewart Airport and John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria Airport agree that being linked to a famous name helps with marketing.

"As airports in Western Pennsylvania, we don't compete against each other, per se, but federal airport improvement money is competitive," said Gene Lakin, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which oversees operations of the Palmer airport in Unity Township.

"As a marketing tool, I think name association is key," added Lakin, who also serves as a consultant to the Fayette authority.

As with Palmer's case almost eight years ago, the rechristening in Fayette coincided with Hardy's birthday. The authority held a Saturday morning meeting in January to change the name in time for the lumber magnate's birthday bash that night at his Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa in Farmington.

Fayette Airport Authority members first voted to rename the Dunbar Township facility for Hardy, a Republican seeking his second term as county commissioner.

Some Connellsville city officials and historians protested, claiming a 1936 municipal agreement barred a name change.

But authority Solicitor Mark Rowan said there was no stipulation for the name in the 1966 deed when the county bought the property for $50,000.

Despite overwhelming community opposition, the board finally determined the facility will be called the Joseph A. Hardy-Connellsville Airport.

At a press conference last week, Hardy said the airport needs at least $2 million dollars in renovations to fix conditions he termed "terrible."

"That thing has to get so it's usable," he said. "It's a joke now."

Authority Chairman Jesse Wallace confirmed the airport's needs include new plumbing, structural repairs to the hangars and cosmetic improvements.

Despite dedicated board members, the airport's budget basically is limited to fuel sales, hangar rentals and grants, he said.

"It's been, because of financial constraints over the years, let go," Wallace said.

Wallace said he was encouraged by Hardy's hints last week that he'll stay financially committed to the airport because his name will be attached. Hardy gave the authority an $800,000 credit line to pay for engineering and design services for runway development.

"Of course, that would be greatly received," Wallace said. "We could do a lot with that airport."

The Johnstown-Cambria Airport fixed its star to a prominent politician.

Although Murtha, D-Johnstown, frequently announces grants for the facility, annual capital improvement funding hovered around $1.5 million before -- and after -- the 2000 name change, said airport Director Joseph McKelvey.

The Murtha name may give the airport regional recognition, but development funds are awarded by merit, he said.

"I'm not so sure the name has anything to do with it," McKelvey said. "I would say it doesn't have an effect."

It's difficult to put a price tag on whether the name changes in Westmoreland or Cambria counties have helped economic development in the region.

PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation released economic impact reports in 1994 and 2000, but has not scheduled a date for a new study, spokeswoman Alison Wenger said in an e-mail.

In the last study, the bureau said the Palmer airport generated about $52 million in economic impact for the state, more than doubling the $24 million figure of six years before.

Despite the lack of data supporting the monetary impact, Lakin said he believes the Palmer name gives the Westmoreland airport an edge when officials contact a major airline's chief executive officer or a politician.

After US Airways Express pulled its commuter flights to Pittsburgh in July 2004, airport officials attracted Northwest Airlines to offer commercial service about nine months later.

"I think the management at Northwest Airlines was certainly aware of Mr. Palmer's association with the airport," Lakin said. "I think they gave us some special attention, but we certainly had to prove ourselves."

Indiana County's facility has been tied to its favorite son for almost a half-century.

In 1959, the first 84 Lumber store in Washington County had been open for three years, Murtha was a Marine Corps Reserves captain in Johnstown and Palmer was one year removed from winning the first of his four Masters championships.

Stewart was back in Hollywood after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Army Air Forces service in World War II.

Today, the airport doesn't have a lot of money for marketing, but it offers a summertime Jimmy Stewart Airport Festival, said Jim Bellock, assistant manager.

This year, one of the main attractions will be the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation's B-24 Liberator, the only restored plane of its type that still flies.

It's the same model of bomber Stewart flew in Europe.

"We do it not because of Jimmy Stewart, but to bring attention to aviation," Bellock said.

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