April 18--A New York developer wants to buy 753 acres of Lehigh Valley International Airport land to build warehouse, office and commercial buildings.
The Rockefeller Group, based in New York City, this week unveiled a plan to buy and develop large swaths of mostly farmland around the airport's main airfield in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. It also outlines properties Rockefeller is not interested in buying, including Braden Airpark in Forks Township.
The plan, endorsed Wednesday by the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority's executive committee, begins a two- to five-year process to redevelop land to raise money to lift the struggling airport out of its financial problems.
It won't be clear how much the property will fetch until federally approved appraisals are done, but a large portion of the same land -- roughly 559 acres -- was appraised at $8 million to $10 million in 2010.
The good news is that the deal may well solve the airport's suffocating debt problems. The bad news is that much of the land being resold now cost the airport authority more than $30 million to buy in the first place.
"Well, we have to throw history to the wind and deal with the present," authority board Chairman Tony Iannelli said. "In the present, this is very positive news and we haven't had much of that lately. It shows a light at the end of the tunnel."
The authority board is expected to review the Rockefeller plan next week. The airport authority is selling assets to raise money so it can pay the $14 million left on a $26 million court judgment against it for taking 632 acres of WBF Associates' development land in the mid-1990s. The legal fees of the 15-year court battle, combined with other land fees and the court judgment, meant the authority paid more than $33 million for the WBF property, according to a Morning Call investigation in 2011.
The debt must be paid by the end of 2015. The authority expects to have enough money to make payments through 2013, but has to find a way to come up with a $5 million payment due in 2014, and a $6 million payment in 2015.
Rockefeller's report comes after months of reviewing all property airport officials have deemed non-essential. In its plan, Rockefeller offers a letter of intent to buy and develop 534 acres of farmland straddling Allen and East Allen townships just north of Race Street, and an additional 219 acres just east of Airport Road in Hanover Township, Northampton County, airport Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. said.
The company also served notice that it has no interest in several smaller properties along Airport Road, or in the 74-acre Braden Airpark, but Everett said the airport will try to find other buyers for those parcels.
Rockefeller has not made public precisely how it plans to develop the property, but authority officials acknowledged that the lands along Race Street appear ripe for industrial and massive warehouse development, while the lands along Airport Road could be open to industrial, warehouse, commercial and office buildings. No homes can be built on any of the land because they're too close to the airport.
"This looks good," said Cindy Feinberg, an authority member who is also the Lehigh County director of community and economic development. "I particularly like that it's not all big boxes. There is a need for smaller box development there."
Whatever Rockefeller builds, none of it will happen overnight. Under the proposed deal, the company has 12 to 18 months to get township planning and zoning approvals, and Federal Aviation Administration approvals. Rockefeller will foot the bill for all of that.
Once the land is prepared for development, a new FAA-approved appraisal will be done to determine how much Rockefeller must pay the airport authority. Then the company will have up to three years to lease, sell or develop the land. That means it could take more than four years for the authority to get all of its money, and that concerns some members.
"We have a hard-and-fast deadline of [repaying the debt by] 2015," said authority board member Dean Browning. "And this doesn't fit into it."
Everett said he expects much of the property to sell much sooner than that. But even if Rockefeller runs out the entire clock, Everett said the authority could borrow money against the future sales to meet the court-ordered deadline.
"We're very happy with this concept," Everett said. "It's progress."
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