DeNunzio's cries 'politics' as county leaders press to open restaurant lease at Arnie Palmer airport

Jeff Himler, Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.
·4 min read

Apr. 13—The Westmoreland County Airport Authority plans to seek proposals for leasing the restaurant space at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. The current rental agreement is set to expire next year, and county commissioners pressed the authority to open the lease to other potential operators.

Chairman Paul Puleo, at Tuesday's authority meeting, referred the matter to the property committee to develop a request for proposals as soon as possible.

Commissioners Doug Chew and Gina Cerilli Thrasher attended the meeting to request that all interested parties be allowed to make an offer to lease the Unity airport's upper-story restaurant space, which also includes a banquet room. The restaurant is leased to DeNunzio's Italian Chophouse, which has sister restaurants in Jeannette and Monroeville.

Chew said he was encouraged by the authority's plan to seek proposals for the restaurant lease. "Government functions best when the operation is transparent to the public," he said.

"It's only fair that other restaurants have a chance of getting this," Thrasher said of the lease.

The commissioners, including Sean Kertes, issues a joint statement before the airport authority meeting urging its members "to do the right thing."

"We request bids and proposals to give every local company a chance to participate and to achieve the best price and service for the taxpayer," Kertes, who couldn't attend the meeting, said in the release.

The commissioners referred to an April 1 letter the authority received from Pittsburgh attorney Louis DePaul, indicating that one of his clients "has a strong interest in leasing the facilities" at the airport. DePaul declined to name the client. He expressed his belief that the rent the authority is receiving for the space is "significantly below market" and that his client "would almost certainly be willing to pay significantly more."

The current restaurant lease dates back to 1995, when the dining venue was operated as Jimmie Monzo's Blue Angel and the annual rent was $19,800, according to authority Solicitor Dan Hewitt. The lease was extended multiple times, with fee adjustments based on the consumer price index.

The lease was transferred in 2004 to DeNunzio's, which is paying monthly rates of about $2,000 each for rent and for utilities, Hewitt said. The lease expires in March 2022, and the authority had been negotiating with DeNunzio's on a successor lease, according to Hewitt.

Restaurant owner Ron DeNunzio said he signed a proposed new lease that doubled his fees for rent and utilities, and he was expecting the authority to act on it Tuesday. "Then politics got involved," he said.

DeNunzio noted the airport had not landed Spirit Airlines as a commercial carrier when he took over restaurant operations.

"We sacrificed and gave up a lot of opportunities" to remain at the airport, DeNunzio said, including investing in improvements to the restaurant space. "We continued to work hard and formulated a good team that has been dedicated to running it professionally."

At the height of operations, the airport restaurant employed as many as 100 people, he said. It remained open, though struggling, during pandemic-related restrictions, when it was limited to offering take-out orders. It partnered with the authority to offer free meals to first responders during the early days of the covid-19 pandemic.

"This is something I've worked 20 years of my life on," DeNunzio said of the Unity restaurant.

The county also made substantial investments in the airport, the commissioners noted. That includes nearly $2.8 million this year to support airport operations, the largest such allocation from the county's general budget for operating expenses of an external entity, Chew said.

Thrasher noted the commissioners also lobbied for road improvements to provide a better link between the airport and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

"The county now asks you to return our investment by doing the fiscally responsible thing by requesting bids for this restaurant space," she told the authority.

The Unity airport delivers an economic impact of $226 million annually, according to a 2019 study by the state Bureau of Aviation. Spirit Airlines started serving the airport in 2011. Before that, the regional airport provided a local economic benefit of about $98 million a year, the bureau found.

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