Steelpointe Developer Argues Bridgeport Should Have Put Major Sikorsky Airport Lease Out To Bid

March 3, 2022

Mar. 4—BRIDGEPORT — City officials say revenues from a new lease with a longtime, major tenant at Sikorsky Memorial Airport will eliminate that facility's long-standing annual operating deficit, better positioning the site for a purchase by the state.

But the proposed 20-year length of the contract with Atlantic Aviation is being questioned, as is the decision not to put it out to bid.

"My biggest thing is just the lack of a competitive process," Robert Christoph Jr., the prominent Steelpointe developer and owner of Three Wing Aviation, another mainstay at Bridgeport-owned, Stratford-based Sikorsky, said this week. "It should not be done without a competitive process so the public can understand it got the best deal."

He said Three Wing would have "absolutely" turned in its own proposal for the area occupied by Atlantic.

The city in a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media admitted a competitive process "was not pursued" but touted the financial and other advantages of keeping Atlantic as a tenant. When a municipal department spends over $25,000 it must go out to bid under the purchasing guidelines, but officials said that does not apply to leasing out public property.

And the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates many operations at Sikorsky, said Thursday, "Local procurement laws govern the renewal process for this lease at Sikorsky Memorial Airport. The FAA is not involved."

Sikorsky is currently used by business, charter and private planes. The goal is to also bring back regular commercial passenger service once the city strikes a deal to sell the facility to the Connecticut Airport Authority. The authority, which operates Bradley International and a handful of other Connecticut airports, recently offered a maximum of $10 millon for Sikorsky.

In February Michelle Muoio, the manager of Sikorsky, presented Bridgeport's airport commission with a draft, 20-year lease with Atlantic Aviation. The nationwide firm has operated hangars at the Stratford site for over three decades and provides fliers a host of services, from fueling and de-icing to baggage services, catering and hotel arrangements.

According to Muoio, the lease rate would increase from approximately $310,000 annually to $1.1 million, plus $300,000 in new fees.

Muoio noted to airport commission members the difference in the lease rate alone "is approximately the current operating deficit at the airport, so that was pretty exciting."

She also noted that Bridgeport has been in a good negotiating position because the majority of other local airports are full.

But a vote to keep Atlantic as a tenant was delayed last month by commission member Aidee Nieves, Bridgeport's City Council president. Nieves said she had some concerns about the 20-year length of the lease and how it factors into ongoing negotiations with the state.

"I don't want to make that vote right now. I don't feel comfortable doing it," Nieves had said.

The authority was supposed to reconvene this past Tuesday but that meeting was canceled.

In addition to Nieves' questions, Christoph has been raising his own about why other firms were not provided the opportunity by Bridgeport to submit their own proposals for the lease Atlantic occupies. He and his father, Robert Sr., the developers behind Bridgeport's Steelepointe harborfront parcel, purchased Three Wing about three years ago and recently partnered with Atlantic and the city to pay for a study of the airport's economic potential.

"I have asked (why the lease was not bid). I get a response that this is a great deal for Bridgeport and we should go forward with it, which is not an answer," Christoph said. "I do not have a beef with Atlantic. I think they're a great organization. They are impressive. They've done good things in their growth. ... It's just the lack of competitive process I find appalling."

Addressing the length of the lease, Muoio in an email Wednesday to Hearst Connecticut wrote that two decades "is pretty standard for similar airport lease agreements because ... tenants hope to amortize their investment over time."

"This particular parcel requires future capital improvements and major upkeep as well as investment to improve aesthetics along Main St. (in Stratford)," she added. She said Atlantic has also agreed to fund some "very costly" utility upgrades.

Muoio did not state that Bridgeport would have been prohibited from bidding the Atlantic lease. Instead, she argued, last year the city issued "a request for information" from private entities interested overall in investing in Sikorsky, and Three Wing responded but at that time did not express interest in the Atlantic site.

" Atlantic has been the only entity on record that had communicated a formal desire to improve and lease that particular parcel. Therefore a competitive bid was not pursued," Muoio said.

Atlantic in a statement Thursday said the company "followed the request for information process that the city and the airport solicited last year, which was a public process and open to all interested parties at that time."

" Atlantic has enjoyed a positive, respectful relationship with the airport, City of Bridgeport, and the Town of Stratford for the past three decades. We expect that to continue," the company said. "We are proud of our past relationship with the airport, and we have invested millions of dollars into this leasehold over the past few years and plan on investing millions more as part of our lease extension. These improvements will not only benefit the surrounding Stratford and Bridgeport communities, but the flying community at the airport as well."

Meanwhile Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, in an interview last month said "we have no concerns" with the proposed deal with Atlantic.

"They (the city) discussed the matter with us and we're fully aware of the parameters of the lease," Dillon said. "I think it's a good deal for the airport. Whether or not it fully takes care of deficits going forward, that's kind of a moving target, unfortunately sometimes. (But) it certainly goes a long way toward getting to a 'break even' point."

Back in 2016 when the city was initially talking about selling Sikorsky to the authority, Dillon, referencing the facility's operating deficit, had said, "We would not be interested in paying money for another airport that's losing revenue."


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