Westmoreland commissioners blast airport authority over vote on Arnold Palmer restaurant lease

Jul. 13—It's been a month since the Westmoreland County Airport Authority approved a new lease for the airport's restaurant but it continues to draw flak about the move from county commissioners.

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

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

The restaurant no longer will have the exclusive right to sell food on the airport property or during the airshow that normally is held annually there.

But county Commissioners Gina Cerilli Thrasher and Doug Chew, who attended Tuesday's meeting, suggested the authority could be taking in more revenue from the restaurant lease and they blasted 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 bit disconcerting" that the authority "rammed through a lease without any of the comments that my colleague here today and I offered up."

Referring to about $2.7 million in taxpayer dollars the county provides annually to the authority, Chew said the authority should "make sure those tax dollars are spent fairly and wisely for the people of Westmoreland County.

"Most of the people we represent can't walk into this airport because they're too poor to fly to Florida. They don't even get a benefit from that $3 million we issue to this airport each and every year," said Chew.

"No other authority would refuse to meet with the commissioners to go over suggestions that we have," Thrasher said. Pointing out that the commissioners appoint members of the authority, she said, "I will not be voting to reappoint anyone who approved this contract."

Mark Gera and Gary Beck cast the sole votes against the new DeNunzio's lease. Beck said he has no complaint with DeNunzio's but "thought it would be in the best interest of the taxpayers if (the lease) would be opened up."

"If you want to keep DeNunzio's here, that is fine, but have them pay the fair market rate," Thrasher told the authority. She said the county is "paying more money for court documents, to store boxes, than what the restaurant is paying you."

Authority Chairman Paul Puleo, who participated in the meeting by phone, later said the authority reviewed proposals from other prospective restaurant operators, but the majority of the board decided to stick with DeNunzio's.

"When it came down to it, we had a proven operator," Puleo said, adding that revision of the lease "has been in the works for a couple of years" and he considers the new terms to be "fair and equitable for everybody."

He said logistics prevented the board from meeting with Chew and Thrasher.

County Commissioner Sean Kertes had joined his two colleagues in asking the authority to seek competitive proposals for operating the airport restaurant lease. Beyond that, Kertes said, the commissioners have no say in actions taken by appointed authorities and he trusts such boards to act responsibly.

"We always want to see more revenue coming from any of these agencies," he said, noting DeNunzio's will be paying about $50,000 more per year under the new lease. Kertes added that the airport brings in additional revenue from car rentals and reimbursements from the Transportation Security Administration, while supporting more than 100 jobs.

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

He said the authority intends to look for new sources of revenue at the airport, including a bus storage lease the authority approved at its meeting, and he pointed out the economic impact the airport generates is many times what the county invests in tax dollars. It delivers an economic impact of $226 million annually, according to a 2019 study by the state Bureau of Aviation.

The bus storage lease, which needs Unity Township approval, would allow the Greater Latrobe School District's busing company to store school buses near the airport's public safety building. The authority would get $2,500 per month for bus parking and $240 per month for use of an office desk in the building.

Doug Griffin, a business executive and general aviation pilot from the Latrobe area who said he has flown from the airport for 35 years, attended Tuesday's meeting to praise the work the authority has done in running the airport.

"My company helps the county, and this airport helps my company," he said.

The Westmoreland County Airport Authority 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 through time and travel charges to renters at the site, the authority will receive $2,800 per year for office space. Enterprise has the option of renting a wash bay for its cars, at $300 per month.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, jhimler@triblive.com or via Twitter .