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RockPointe airport and business park struggles with litigation

| Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rock Ferrone admits he could lose his shirt.

And then some.

Since buying the former West Penn Airport in West Deer in 1998, Ferrone has struggled mightily to turn it into the general aviation airport and business park he envisioned.

The process of constructing what now is a 3,500-foot runway, which has cost more than $20 million, hit a few bumps along the way.

Funding issues slowed the project significantly. And Ferrone said recently he doesn't expect the airport to take off until the runway is extended to 5,500 feet.

The extension, Ferrone said, will cost about $1.3 million. His goal is to have the project done by October or November of 2008.

With that length of runway, RockPointe Business Airpark could be home to a general aviation airport, meaning basically anything but commercial and military aircraft can fly in and out.

"Five-thousand is the magic number," Ferrone said.

Had the runway already been at 5,500 feet, golfers who fly jets could've used the airport for their trip to the U.S. Open. For the most part, however, spectators were the ones who flew in, using smaller planes such as a single-engine Cessna or twin turbo-prop plane.

Among the planes that will be able to use a general aviation airport will be very light jets, which, just as the name indicates, are smaller and lighter jets that come at a relatively inexpensive cost -- in the neighborhood of a couple million, depending on design.

Such a plane is becoming increasingly common in the business world, state aviation officials said.

"What's going to make (RockPointe) work is the airport," Ferrone said. "A lot of companies are going to be using their own jets. I'm convinced of it."

Rick Bachelder, owner of RockPointe tenant Filmet, said his motivation for seeking a location at the airpark was the potential for convenient air travel.

Commercial air travel, he said, is a nightmare given some of locations of some of the company's clients.

"A key, for us, to being successful, is access to a regional economy," Bachelder said.

Filmet, a photography and graphic design production company formerly based in Swissvale, has clients across much of the northeast.

The company doesn't have its own plane, mainly because RockPointe does not have a hangar for him, Bachelder said.

Bachelder said if RockPointe had available runway space, a courier such as FedEx could land at the airport to pick up products for delivery. A development along those lines would make life easier for Filmet.

"That type of business model makes a lot of sense for us," he said.

Filmet customers do fly in and out of the airport, however.

Bachelder said he's a big believer in Ferrone's West Deer dream. Calling Ferrone an "infectious person," Bachelder said of his efforts, "If he is successful, the region is that much better off."

Ferrone has been successful in his other business. Rock-Built is a leading manufacturer of equipment used in the printing industry. But it remains to be seen Ferrone's foray into the airpark will work.

Trouble abounds for RockPointe, off Russellton Airport Road, in the form of various lawsuits. Ferrone is involved in at least four of them -- two in federal court and the others at the Allegheny County level.

Two banks are suing Ferrone for close to $2.4 million, claiming he defaulted on loans for airport improvements.

Ferrone has filed two lawsuits of his own in federal court, claiming county officials and others violated his civil rights.

Both suits target county Executive Dan Onorato and Dennis Davin, the county's director of economic development.

One of the federal suits also targets a lengthy list of other defendants in county government and the private sector.

Ferrone estimated that his monthly legal bills have, at times, exceeded $20,000. He also said he spends 90 percent of his time dealing with the suits.

Ferrone said losing in court could end his airpark aspirations.

"I'd lose everything," he said candidly.

In the same breath, though, he said the county's improper actions will make him "a very rich man."

In fact, Ferrone is confident he will prevail in each lawsuit.

RockPointe's future

When asked what his vision is for the future of the airpark, given mounting legal and financial problems, Ferrone said, "It's the same as when I started in '98. And that's to build a first-class general aviation airport.

"The timing just hasn't been something I've been comfortable with."

Right now, there is no earth being moved at RockPointe for the runway extension, or addition for other facilities like hangars or a fuel farm.

Ferrone said, however, that he hopes to soon go out to bid for the fuel farm and hangars.

RockPointe sits on about 325 acres, 200 acres of which are suitable for development.

One factor in making the property attractive to tenants is its designation as a state Keystone Opportunity Zone. The program offers businesses 10 years of tax abatements for locating there.

The KOZ expires in 2011.

Since about 2003, there hasn't been an addition to the airpark tenant list. Four companies are located there: Filmet, Joseph B. Fay, Management Science Associates and Ferrone's Rock-Built. Each of the companies sits on about 5 acres.

Property-development company, Zambrano Corp., owns property at the airpark, but doesn't have an office there.

Company official Gene Zambrano did not return a phone call for comment.

Alfred Kuehn, Management Science CEO, declined to answer questions about his company's experience at RockPointe. But in a 2004 interview with the Valley News Dispatch, Kuehn expressed frustration with Rockpointe's development pace.

MSA, which specializes in data processing, database management and data mining, was involved in a dispute with Ferrone during the construction of its facility. Consequently, it dropped plans to expand at the site. MSA has one building at the airpark with about 100 employees. It originally planned to have several hundred employees there.

Kuehn and MSA are defendants in one of Ferrone's civil rights lawsuits.

An official with Joseph B. Fay, a construction company, did not return calls seeking comment.

All told, there are about 600 employees working at RockPointe.

That number, however, is much smaller than the one Ferrone and elected officials initially touted -- 4,000 jobs.

Ferrone said he still believes the airpark will create as many as 8,000 jobs when complete.

The process of making a venture like RockPointe work isn't easy, however, according to the state Bureau of Aviation.

Brian Gearhart, aviation bureau engineering and planning division manager, said the state's airparks are all unique. In RockPointe's case, it's privately owned. The airpark in Bedford County, by contrast, is publicly owned. For that reason, Gearhart said, it's difficult to compare RockPointe with others.

Gearhart said that none of the airparks have been immune from some adversity in trying to grow and become successful.

"The general nature of this, in looking at the other airports throughout the state where there is a runway reconstruction involved or relocation work to do in and around the runway, is that there are always challenges associated with it," Gearhart said. "Some projects are more challenging than others," he added. "But there are those things you try to plan for and take into account to look for ways to avoid them."

For many businesses, he said, convenient access to air travel is one of the primary factors in deciding where to locate.

"That in itself is a draw, a factor that makes people want to stay there as well as draw new folks in," Gearhart said. "Sometimes business fluctuates, although usually we've seen them as very successful in being an economic engine for community."

Citing what he said is the most recent report available on the economic impact aviation has had in the state, Gearhart said aviation generated $12.6 billion in "economic output" in 2001.

The aviation bureau has funneled millions of dollars into Ferrone's runway project in an effort to get it completed. Ferrone said he's received $11 million from the bureau. The money came at a 75 percent/25 percent match.

Gearhart said the bureau remains committed to the project, hoping it becomes what the bureau, Ferrone and many elected officials hoped it would.

"Our intent was to provide the infrastructure available to help the area and meet community needs," he said. "There are always varying degrees of success. We're early on in really seeing true benefits of this project. It was a project we thought was of value to fund. Now we're waiting to see how the rest of it plays out."

The county claims to still support the project, despite the litigation.

Davin said: "The Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County has a contractual agreement in which money was loaned for the project. The (redevelopment authority) remains interested in making the airport work."

That loan, for $1.5 million, is at the center of one of Ferrone's civil rights suits.

Ferrone, meantime, said he won't ditch his aspirations, despite any level of difficulty he's faced. He said he is giving thought to taking on a partner, but did not name any names.

"I've put everything on the line for this," Ferrone said. "This by no stretch started out as a bad risk."

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