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Westmoreland commissioners denounce airport authority over Arnold Palmer restaurant lease vote

It has been a month since the Westmoreland County Airport Authority approved a new lease for the airport restaurant, but it continues to draw criticism over the county commissioners’ move.

The restaurant’s new lease was approved by a 7-2 vote in June, allowing DeNunzio’s Italian Chophouse to continue operating on approximately 7,500 square feet at the Unity airport terminal.

The new 5-year lease, which is subject to two renewals, includes monthly charges of $ 7,447.50 for rent and utilities, up from $ 4,000 per month previously. DeNunzio will also pay $ 500 per month for the use of a separate banquet hall, compared to $ 500 per quarter, and $ 750 for the operation of a snack bar.

The restaurant will no longer have the exclusive right to sell food on airport property or during the air show that is normally held there each year.

But county commissioners Gina Cerilli Thrasher and Doug Chew, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, suggested the authority could get more revenue from the restaurant’s lease and they lambasted the board for not agreeing to meet with them to discuss their suggestions before voting on the lease.

Chew said he found it “a little baffling” that the authority “entered into a lease without any of the comments that my colleague here and I offered.”

Referring to the roughly $ 2.7 million in taxpayer dollars that the county provides to the authority each year, Chew said the authority should “ensure that those taxpayer dollars are spent fairly and wisely for the residents. of Westmoreland County.

“Most of the people we represent can’t get into this airport because they’re too poor to fly to Florida. They don’t even benefit from the $ 3 million that we give to this airport every year, ”Chew said.

“No other authority would refuse to meet with the commissioners to review the suggestions we have,” Thrasher said. Emphasizing that the commissioners appoint the members of the authority, she said: “I will not vote to renew anyone who has approved this contract.”

Mark Gera and Gary Beck voted alone against DeNunzio’s new lease. Beck said he had no complaints against DeNunzio but “thought it would be in the best interest of the taxpayers if (the lease) were opened.”

“If you want to keep DeNunzio here, that’s fine, but make them pay the fair market price,” Thrasher told the authority. She said the county “pays more money for court documents, to store boxes than the restaurant pays you.”

Authority chairman Paul Puleo, who attended the meeting by phone, later said the authority had considered proposals from other potential restaurateurs, but the majority of the board decided to stick to that of DeNunzio.

“At the end of the day, we had a proven operator,” Puleo said, adding that the lease review “has been going on for a few years” and that he considers the new terms to be “fair and equitable for everyone” . . “

He said logistics made it difficult for the board to meet with Chew and Thrasher.

County commissioner Sean Kertes joined his two colleagues in seeking permission to seek competitive bids for the operation of the airport restaurant lease. Beyond that, Kertes said, the commissioners have no say in the actions taken by the designated authorities and he trusts those boards to act responsibly.

“We always want to see more revenue coming from one of these agencies,” he said, noting that DeNunzio will pay around $ 50,000 more per year under the new lease. Kertes added that the airport generates additional revenue through car rentals and reimbursements from the Transportation Security Administration, while supporting more than 100 jobs.

Puleo said the county’s financial support to the authority was crucial in attracting Spirit Airlines, the airport’s only commercial carrier, in 2011. But he added that part of the county’s financial contribution to the authority is the debt service on a bond issue that will be withdrawn before the end of the decade.

He said the authority intended to seek new sources of revenue at the airport, including a bus storage lease that the authority approved at its meeting, and he stressed that the impact The economic generated by the airport is several times greater than that which the county invests in tax dollars. It has an economic impact of $ 226 million per year, according to a 2019 State Bureau of Aviation study.

The bus storage lease, which requires approval from Unity Township, would allow the Grand Latrobe School District Bus Company to store school buses near the airport public safety building. The authority would receive $ 2,500 per month for bus parking and $ 240 per month for the use of an office in the building.

Doug Griffin, a company executive and general aviation pilot from the Latrobe area, who said he has been flying from the airport for 35 years, attended Tuesday’s meeting to praise the work the authority in the management of the airport.

“My business helps the county and this airport helps my business,” he said.

The Westmoreland County Airport Authority has also approved a new five-year lease with Enterprise for its car rental space at the Arnold Palmer Terminal. In addition to collecting a 10% fee on what the company collects in time and travel costs for tenants on site, the authority will receive $ 2,800 per year for office space. Enterprise has the option of renting a car wash bay for $ 300 per month.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Tribune-Review. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, or via Twitter .

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