Harnett County is taking its jetport in a new direction.
The Harnett County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night voted by a narrow 3-2 margin to terminate the existing Fixed Base Operator (FBO) contract between Warren Investments of North Carolina Inc. and the Harnett County Regional Jetport, effectively ending the partnership more than two years early.
Irvin Warren, the owner of Warren Investments, died in December and trustees of his estate planned to award the remaining 2 years and 4 months of the FBO contract to long-time employee Gary Peacock, who addressed commissioners prior to Tuesday night’s vote. The contract paid Warren Investments of North Carolina Inc. $138,500 a year to run the day-to-day operations of the jetport until June 30, 2023.
Peacock started the process of setting up his own entity, Warren Aviation, in an effort to complete the assignment, but said he began receiving mixed messages from the county regarding the transaction.
“I was told the trustees of [Irwin Warren’s] estate wanted to assign the remainder of the Fixed Based Operator contract over to me,” Peacock said. “I immediately called Commissioner [Lew] Weatherspoon to ask him to assist me with this process. He said he wasn’t sure if the commissioners had to vote on it and that he would find out. He called me later and told me he talked to [County Attorney] Chris Appel, who incidentally wrote the contract, and Chris Appel stated no vote was needed, and all I had to do was notify the county. I called Chris Appel to confirm this and he did.”
Peacock claimed Weatherspoon then told him after a January airport board meeting the county faced a lot of decisions regarding the contract, and that County Attorney Dwight Snow informed the commissioner a vote on the FBO transfer was needed.
“I’ve seen attorneys disagree but it’s rare when they do it when they’re on the same team,” said Peacock. “You have letter after letter of recommendation for me. Do you have letters of protest or is it just whispers in one of your ears? The naysayers all have something to gain by you denying this. Look at who is doing the whispering.”
Appel addressed the FBO contract during a Feb. 9 commissioners work session, outlining two separate clauses that allow for termination. With Warren’s estate approving of the assignment to Peacock, Appel said “consent can not be unreasonably withheld.”
“They have to get written consent from the board in order to assign it,” Appel said. “I equate [the clause] to you have to have good cause as to why not to allow the assignment.”
In his address to commissioners on Tuesday, Peacock said the jetport continues to show growth and there is no reason for a premature change in management.
“The questions about our success are totally unwarranted,” said Peacock. “The numbers speak for themselves. We put Harnett County on the aviation map. The county is getting more sales and property tax from the airport than ever before. I’ve spoken to federal and state and other county officials and nobody can recall a government entity taking over a private enterprise unless it was failing. This is not failing, it is thriving.”
Commissioner Mark Johnson, who joined Barbara McKoy in voting against the contract termination, supported Peacock’s assessment of the jetport.
“I think we all have a Warren Aviation facts and statistics book,” Johnson said. “I’ve gone through this and read every word of it. I’m not sure everybody has. I see no discrepancy in here and see no reason to change Warren Aviation or Gary Peacock from the airport. Not wanting to go through here and read all these facts, it looks like it had been just vast and continued improvement from beginning to now.
“I just feel real strongly from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, the people of Harnett County are in favor of Warren Aviation and keeping Mr. Peacock intact.”
Since becoming corporate manager seven years ago, Peacock said the jetport’s fuel sales increased nearly 1,000%.
“I’ve put my heart and soul into that airport and I am more proud of its success than anything I’ve done in my entire life,” said Peacock. “The Warrens are attempting to assign this contract as a reward for my hard work and success out there.”
In his Feb. 9 address to commissioners, Appel also made note of another clause in the FBO that is common in many county contracts. A provision under Article 15, Appel said, included a termination of convenience section allowing the county to terminate the FBO after providing a 90-day notice.
“If you were to allow assignment and something didn’t work out, there is always that provision in there,” Appel told commissioners. “The estate is in charge of the contract and I’ve been informed that they do wish to assign it to Mr. Peacock. There is always that provision for the 90-day notice of termination. If we were to move forward with that, the board would have to decide what the next step would be.”
Newly elected commissioners Weatherspoon, Matt Nicol and Chairman W. Brooks Matthews voted to move forward with that option. When reached for comment about his decision to terminate the FBO, Weatherspoon forwarded questions to Assistant County Manager Brian Haney, who provided a statement from the county office.
“The County’s Fixed Base Operator Agreement with Warren Investment Company of NC allows for termination for convenience with 90 days notice and the Board of Commissioners has elected to exercise that right,” the statement said. “The Board is currently weighing its options to determine the best way to move forward for both Harnett Regional Jetport and the county. At this time, no final decisions have been made.”
Nicols and Matthews could not be reached for comment.
Harnett County entered the airport-running business Tuesday night, and now have 90 days to figure out what that looks like.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.