Airport operators face battle for control

Carroll commissioners consider new managers

September 29, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For more than two decades, the operations at Carroll County Regional Airport remained in the hands of June Poage.

She ran the airfield when it was a dirt runway, and she made it a hub for corporate jets with 120,000 takeoffs a year.

But she died in May. And who will run the business may be up in the air.

The Carroll County commissioners are discussing the possibility of hiring new management for the county-owned airport. But Poage's business partners, who are operating the airport under a long-term lease, are threatening to fight any effort to oust them.

Two of the commissioners met last week to consider putting the job out to bid.

But the three commissioners plan to meet Tuesday with David Johnson, attorney for Rick and Bonnie Jones, who have run the airport since Poage's death.

"The Joneses are the primary owners, and they will continue to operate the airport and they intend to continue throughout the entirety of their lease," Johnson said.

"At our meeting, I am hoping to find out why the commissioners are pursuing this. If they persist, the courts will stop it."

Although the contract runs through 2004, Commissioner Donald I. Dell broached the idea of a new manager with the Economic Development Commission on Thursday. No members responded to his request for a committee to review the applications.

Dell and Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier met Friday to discuss putting out a request for a proposal for a "fixed base operator" at the airport. They will resume discussions Tuesday with the third commissioner, Julia Walsh Gouge.

"We have not made a decision, but we are working on this," Dell said. "We are hoping to get something to work out there."

Poage and her husband, pilot Jack Poage, opened the airport on a 120-acre tract along Route 97 outside Westminster in 1979. They formed a company, Westair Inc., and negotiated a lease agreement to operate the airport and its county-owned buildings.

In 1990, Jack Poage was killed in an air show accident at Martin State Airport in Middle River. June Poage continued to run the business. She oversaw more than $15 million in government-funded improvements to attract pilots.

The business rents the terminal and several small hangars for about $80,000 a year. The county also receives a percentage of fuel sales.

The Joneses have continued to operate the business under terms of the company's contract with the county. The only change they have made is to the name of the business, now Westair Aviation Inc. They have retained the staff of 15.

Gouge said the Joneses have followed their contract, and she opposes any change in management.

"There is nothing wrong with the Jones' operation," Gouge said. "None of our staff has any problem with the airport since June died. They have kept all the same people, and a lot of times that is the key to a successful operation.

"This is not fair to people who have invested their money in a business and are trying to make it work."

Frazier said that the company's name change negates the contract and that the change in management is a good opportunity to advertise for a new operator.

The Joneses "are welcome and encouraged to give us their management plan," she said.

"Why should they do that, when they already have a contract?" Johnson asked.

Nearly four years ago, Frazier voted against extending June Poage's contract, but Dell and Gouge prevailed.

"We have had many years' experience with a management that never broke even on this operation," Frazier said. "The airport should be making a profit, and it is not. It is not well-managed."

Though she has no managers in mind, Frazier said she is confident "we will get a plan that at least allows the county to break even. This facility could be good for economic development."

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