County airport authority reaches agreement with its former operator

GLENMOOR – The former operator of the Columbiana County Airport Authority recently agreed to pay what he owes for storing his aircraft at the facility, but nothing more for failing to live up to the terms of his contract.

The Authority board voted in December to approve an agreement in which Scott Lesh would pay them $1,230 in back rent, with the Authority forgiving the alleged debts he incurred during his period as the airport’s operator.

Board Chairman Mike Diloreto said they were satisfied with the deal since it made Lesh current on his back rent, and they were not really out any other money.

“What we ended up doing was treating him like any other tenant,” he said.

Lesh was hired to serve as the airport’s operator under a two-year contract approved by the Authority board in October 2008. The contract required Lesh’s Quantum Aviation to pay the airport $400 a month, plus utilities.

Lesh only paid $300, triggering a late penalty, and nothing toward utilities. Lesh rarely showed up and then quit making payments altogether, owing $8,200 as of May 2011. The board declined to renew the contract after it expired and then began trying to collect what it was owed.

Assistant County Prosecutor Andrew Beech recommended the airport settle for the hangar rent Lesh owed and waive the rest, which Diloreto said was mostly penalties anyway.

The airport operator sells fuel, offers pilot training and provides aircraft mechanical repair services. Diloreto said they knew at the time it might not work out with Lesh since airplane owners were cutting back due to the recession and rising fuel prices. Lesh was already busy serving as the operator at the Beaver County (Pa.) Airport and as a pilot instructor for U.S. Airways when he signed on.

“We knew we were going out on a limb in the first place,” he said.

Lesh was the airport’s third operator who has been unable to make a go of it since the 2004 retirement of Jerry Gearhart, the airport’s long-time operator. Rather than actively search for a new operator, the board decided to operate the airport themselves as much as possible. An automated system was installed that allows pilots to purchase fuel around the clock, and pilots also have access to the terminal any time. The airport also has a manager who maintains the buildings and grounds.

Diloreto said many small airports are having a difficult time finding operators because of the economics. “You know what they say: If you want to make a $1 million in aviation, start out with $2 million,” he joked.

The airport’s main source of revenue is $10,000 they receive annually from county commissioners, plus rent from 26 hangars, all of which are currently filled. The airport must obtain federal and state grants to resurface and rehabilitate the runway.