County and developers eye Baltimore Airpark But owner won't quit his blue-collar life, unless price is right

June 30, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

After another hot day on the runway, C. Earle Mace returns to his comfortably cluttered house for a home-cooked supper of baked chicken and the season's first home-grown string beans. With an angular, sun-broiled face, sinewy arms and navy work shirt, he is a picture of blue-collar man.

And even as he nears his 70th birthday, Mace wouldn't trade his hard-working ways for a million bucks.

His price is $4 million.

That's how much he's asking for the 60 acres that are home to his Baltimore Airpark, the small airstrip that some Baltimore County officials covet as a site for a recreation complex to serve the fast-growing White Marsh area. Developers also have shown an interest in the property, which thousands of commuters pass daily on Interstate 95.

Now, the airport's days appear numbered -- to the dismay of pilots who have watched suburban housing developments devour small airports throughout the country.

But when will Mace sell? And who will be the buyer?

"I haven't the slightest idea," he says. "Not the slightest."

Mace says developers have offered him big money, but not enough. He wonders whether county officials, who want more baseball diamonds andsoccer fields in the area, can meet his price.

Charles Schaefer, a partner in Phoenix Aviation, which runs the airport and a flight school there, says, "He's just waiting for whatever comes along. He just likes doing what he's doing."

Raised on a dairy farm in Rossville, Mace is a former merchant marine, a retired electrician and a longtime pilot. He's a mechanic, a painter, a "Mr. Fix-it" in his neighborhood and at the airport.

He's proud of his working-class background -- and wary of politicians and pencil-pushers. "To me, the people that go through college, they don't know their hand from their foot."

He bought the airport and surrounding land in 1967 and expanded it from a dirt strip to a 2,200-foot asphalt runway with hangars, a maintenance shop and the flight school. He carried on with the business even after his partner-brother died in a plane crash there in September 1968.

Mace now leases the airport business to two pilots, but he still travels the dirt road from his home to the airport to do maintenance work. There, he can be seen around the hangars, painting or mending hardware on the doors, and on the runway, patching cracks or spreading weed killer.

Why keep working when he could sell the land and become an overnight millionaire?

"I can't sit around and do nothing and watch television all day," he says.

But selling sounds like a good idea to his wife, Betsy, -- and she says he is reluctantly coming around.

"I do think it's time. He's 70 years old," says Betsy Mace, 68. "The only reason he's holding on to it is he built the place and he doesn't want to see it pushed over in his lifetime."

They nearly settled on a recent offer from a developer, she says. But the idea of selling the land for use as a park -- and maybe even saving the airport -- is more appealing, she says.

Mr. Mace has pitched the idea of leasing the airport to the county police aviation unit. The pilot in him is reluctant to contribute to the demise of another community airport.

Across the country, small airports have been closing at a rate of 70 a year, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Simple economics pose the threat -- suburban land is often worth more for development than an airport.

The Baltimore Airpark, for example, sits within the Honeygo growth zone, an area targeted for the county's next major phase of development.

Association spokesman Warren Morningstar says the nation's 4,700 community airports contribute to an area's economy and provide venues for services such as package transportation, MedEvac helicopters and transportation of transplant organs.

Responding to the county's interest in the land, the Phoenix Aviation partners suggest keeping the airport and using the perimeter for recreation.

But County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, whose 6th District includes the airport, said, "I don't think you'd want to have ball fields and have planes taking off over kids' heads."

Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, has suggested the land as a recreation site. He also has proposed it as an alternative to plans to convert the former Grumman aircraft-parts factory in Glenarm into an indoor sports complex and facilities consolidating county government repair shops.

He said he has discussed the matter with Betsy Mace and is to meet with her husband. But he said the deal could be considered only if the price is $3 million or less.

Those who use the airport know it is likely only a matter of time before it closes.

General Aero Services, the maintenance operation there, has a lease only through 1999. Phoenix Aviation is on a month-to-month lease.

John Strickland, an executive with Egypt Farms, a White Marsh company that produces soils for golf courses, has been flying planes at the airport since it was a dirt strip known as Quinn Field. He says that if the airport closes, he will have to move to Martin State Airport.

Anthony Serio, president of General Aero Services, hopes to stay but knows the matter is out of his hands.

"Earle makes the choices," he says. "It's his airport."

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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