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Mayor Mike Bell disclosed on Wednesday that he has been in talks to turn over the operation of the city-owned Toledo Express Airport to a 26-year-old businessman.
City emails turned over to The Blade show Dock David Treece, a partner in a West Toledo-based financial investment advisory firm — whose father was once a Republican Sylvania Township trustee — has tried for at least seven months to get the Bell administration interested in signing over complete control of the money-losing Toledo Express Airport. The emails make it clear Mr. Treece wants to cut Toledo City Council out of the process.
The mayor told The Blade two weeks ago that there was no plan to sell the airport.
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When asked Wednesday night why he didn’t disclose the ongoing negotiations between the city and Mr. Treece, Mayor Bell told The Blade that he did not elaborate “because the city did not have a concrete plan.”
City records show the younger Mr. Treece has been sending communications to city officials about his proposals to privatize airport operations since April 1.
In a May 6 email, Mr. Treece, a partner in Treece Investments, told Paul Syring, Mayor Mike Bell’s top economic development official, that he was willing to create a “new, privately owned entity that will assume management of Toledo Express.”
The city-owned airport, which is projected to lose about $674,000 this year, is operated and subsidized by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.
“The property will still be owned by the city, but if we can put together an agreement there will be certain rights that we need in order to turn the airport around,” Mr. Treece wrote in the May email.
The entity would need “complete operational control of all public facilities” and the right to “sell, lease, transfer, assign, or hypothecate” property at or near the airport.
“Obviously, transactions would occur at or near fair market value [we’re not going to fire sale property], but if we have to go to city council to approve every deal, we won’t be successful,” Mr. Treece said.
In exchange, Mr. Treece said he and others would commit to personally make up any shortfall from operations; guarantee continued public access to the airport for aviation, and pay the city some portion of profits.
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A month before sending Mr. Syring the draft proposal, Mr. Treece emailed the city asking about “urban renewal/redevelopment” plans and indicated wanting to avoid contact with city council regarding the airport.
“We’re just trying to explore as many different options as are available for working out a deal on the airport with minimal involvement from city council,” Mr. Treece wrote on April 1. “I thought I might find items of interest in urban renewal/redevelopment plans already passed by council, which may allow us to circumvent or more easily navigate various parts of the process.”
On May 13, Mr. Treece sent a more detailed, 12-point outline marked “private and confidential” to Mayor Bell.
Mr. Treece is the son of Dock Treece, president of Treece Investments.
Mayor Bell said he is open to the idea.
“I don’t have the whole plan,” the mayor said. “Dock Treece and Dock Treece, Jr., have been talking about ideas for the airport for probably the past two or three years, and they thought if they were somehow given control, or if it was put into private hands, there was a potential it could become more profitable.”
Mr. Syring on July 5 wrote to port authority President Paul Toth about the airport proposal.
“Yes, I met with Doc and his son Doc David about two weeks ago,” Mr. Syring wrote. “I advised selling the airport is out of the question and any future Treece involvement in managing the airport will require a submittal of a more detailed proposal as well as both city and port approval. They essentially responded by requesting a copy of the airport lease and the current airport detailed budget.”
The mayor met with the younger Mr. Treece about six weeks go.
“I told him I was open to it, but I would have to see if it would be beneficial to the city and the region,” Mayor Bell said. “That’s where we left it.”
The mayor acknowledged that the proposal offered in May was “very preliminary.”
“It is at such an [early] stage there is not a lot of movement on it,” he said. “I am open to it because I want our airport to be successful under the port or under private interest.”
Mayor Bell said city council would be part of any deal regarding the airport.
Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said a change in management could not occur without council approval. City spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei added that it must be operated as a public facility or millions in federal funding would have to be repaid.
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The younger Mr. Treece told The Blade on Wednesday that both Toledo Express and Toledo Executive Airport in Wood County are underused.
“My dad has been making comments to that effect since the 1980s.” the younger Mr. Treece said.
“In recent years we have been looking for ways to make those airports better assets for the community and recently began having preliminary discussions with the city to better understand the issues facing those airports.”
Mr. Treece declined to comment on whether he, his father, or brother Ben Treece have experience in airport management. He also declined to discuss potential partners.
“The discussions are in such an early stage it is not yet clear whether we will become involved and if we do, what shape a deal might take or what it might look like,” he said. “We think that we can resolve some of the issues that are causing the deficit and to allow the port authority to focus on areas [where] it has seen a great deal of success.”
Councilman D. Michael Collins, who is challenging Mayor Bell on in Tuesday’s election, said he supports exploring new ideas for the airport.
“The port authority is very qualified and capable of dealing with commercial projects, but an airport requires a certain level of expertise, and I am not sure the port authority has in its capacity the ability to run an airport, so I would be looking for community guidance as what to do to fortify our airport,” Mr. Collins said.
Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson and Councilman Rob Ludeman, chairman of council’s economic development committee, did not know about Mr. Treece’s proposal.
“We need to consider all things that will benefit transportation, and the airport is vital to the region,” Ms Hicks-Hudson said. “I am not saying that there isn’t proper management now, but we need to do whatever we can to make it as competitive as possible.”
Mr. Toth said the port authority provided Mr. Treece public records about the airport.
“They are basically talking about taking over operation of the airport,” he said. “My board leadership is aware of the discussions going on.”
Mr. Toth said the port’s 20-year lease agreement with the city could be terminated with a 24-month notice.
Toledo Express’ passenger traffic reached another historic low in 2012, declining slightly from 2011.
According to 2012 year-end statistics from the port authority, 143,514 travelers got on or off planes at the airport in 2012, down 1.05 percent from the 145,050 who flew there the previous year. It was the fourth consecutive year passenger business was lower than the 182,898 travelers who used Toledo Express in 1955, its opening year.