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AUCTION DIMMING HIGH HOPES FOR AIRPORT

A Town of Evans airport, which received nearly $2.6 million in federal funding to expand over the past decade, is scheduled to go on the auction block Monday, with no guarantee that it will remain an airport.

The property at 1526 Eden-Evans Center Road is scheduled to be sold in a bankruptcy auction in Erie County Hall, though the sale might be adjourned to a later date.

"If it's purchased as just normal land, then the airport is gone forever, along with all of that federal money," said Brian King, who is spearheading a group of local professionals and pilots seeking to buy the property and restore it as an airport. "The federal government put in $2.6 million, which right now is getting flushed down the toilet."

The site's future is muddied by the fact that the funding from the Federal Aviation Authority came with conditions.

According to FAA spokesman Jim Peters, his agency has requested the original parcel and three additional parcels that were added to the airport with FAA funds -- combining to make up virtually all of the 177-acre site -- not be included in the bankruptcy sale.

However, Gabriel Ferber, the lawyer for the former owners foreclosing on the property, said that State Supreme Court Justice John F. O'Donnell has given his clients a judgment of foreclosure and sale that frees most of the property -- including runways and support buildings -- from the FAA's claims.

Ferber said the sale is expected to be adjourned to a later date "pending independent efforts at resolution," with a third party he declined to identify possibly entering the dealings.

While the legal wranglings have been proceeding, Town of Evans officials have been watching with interest. With some of the longer (3,200 feet) runways among smaller private airstrips in Western New York, the airport has been identified for "reliever airport" status and is eligible for federal funding to help reduce smaller aircraft traffic at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

"We want to see that airport continue, we want to see it maintained, we want to see it grow," Catalino said. "It's got the capability for two runways. It's better than most of the airports out there."

Though the airport has fallen into some neglect, particularly since it was closed earlier this year, it has included fuel and hangar facilities, been home to 24 planes and the site of a flight school.

Premier Airways, owned by Eric and Heather Ohmit, filed for bankruptcy on Feb. 7.

The main creditors are Leonard and Teresa Turrito, who sold the airport to the Ohmits in 1990. The notice of sale on the property said that a judgment for $255,920 is owed on the property.

Since 1993, Premier had received $1 million from the FAA to reconstruct, widen, mark and light one runway, remove trees near the end of the runways and buy 88 acres.

Another $1.4 million in federal money was used for reconstructing a light aircraft tie-down apron, a "stub taxiway," a 1,450-foot entrance road and other property additions.

The Ohmits declined to comment, but sources said a combination of rising business costs and the need to replace two underground gas tanks contributed to Eric Ohmit's decision to stop taking an active role in the business in 2000.

Problems still exist at the site -- such as the removal of the underground gasoline tanks -- but King says the site has great potential as a development tool for the Southtowns. The airport has been home to his aviation maintenance and service company for three years.

"Here you have a company like Flexovit (which has an abrasives plant near the airport)," he said. "They like their executives to come in, you get them in a car, you're in and out in an hour. . . . A lot of these guys, they don't want to wait. It's a huge convenience."

Catalino held out hope that it could remain intact as an airport if aviation interests manage to buy it. And the town could get involved then, taking advantage of 95 percent FAA funding on projects at airports with reliever status.

"If a group wants to put up the money and come to us, then we'd be interested," he said. "We also have a lot of people interested in turning it into commercial property, so it's all a plus for us."

e-mail: eploetz@buffnews.com

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