Airing it out Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002

A little more than a year ago, West Penn Airport was a tiny, obscure, public-use airstrip known only to a close-knit group of flying enthusiasts.

Then, one day, everything changed. Suddenly, that little airstrip and the property surrounding it were propelled into massive economic development that made even the governor's office sit up and take notice.

That was the day Rock Ferrone flew over it.

Ferrone, president and owner of printing industry equipment manufacturer Rock-Built, simply wanted a place to land and keep his four-seater Cessna. So when he found out the airport's owner wanted to sell, he couldn't resist. He also couldn't sit still.

Ferrone didn't see just a tiny airstrip. He envisioned an entire business community built around a slick, new airstrip, with business owners flying in and out all day long. And he saw himself leading the way.

If skeptics existed back then, when he started articulating his high-flying ideas to anyone who would listen, they're gone now, thanks in large part to the giant earth movers, bulldozers and dump trucks that have begun to reshape the land around the airstrip. The earth-moving equipment is preparing the land for a 270-acre office park, which he has named Rockpointe Business Airpark.

Ferrone, with help from Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov. Mark Schweiker and a host of other local dignitaries, recently kicked off the development with a ground-breaking ceremony. However, Ferrone himself has been breaking new ground, figuratively, for the past year as he works every state and federal government angle in his efforts to talk up the project. He was also trying to line up early funding for a project which he predicts will cost about $30 million before it's all finished.

His efforts have landed him as a poster boy of sorts for general aviation-driven economic development in the state as he cuts through bureaucracy with speed and a welcomed sense of wide-eyed naivete. In fact, he managed to convince not only state officials but township and school district officials as well that his development project was worth getting behind.

As a result, the combined taxing bodies have designated Ferrone's site as a Keystone Opportunity Zone, a program launched last year which allows businesses to locate to the site free of local, school and state taxes for 12 years. Ten-and-a-half years remain on that program, compelling Ferrone to forge ahead even more aggressively than before.

Said Schweiker at the event: "Suddenly we stand here looking at the soon-to-be-developed 300-acre airport industrial park. Together, there's no stopping Allegheny County. There's no stopping Pennsylvania."

Rita Pollock, executive director of the economic development and planning agency SPC, sums up Ferrone's efforts simply.

"He's an absolute dynamo," she says of Ferrone. "You don't see people like Rock Ferrone who are so driven and so active. There's something about him. He's such a good guy. And this project is outstanding, because it combines general aviation and industrial sites. It's so clearly a winning opportunity."

Mulugetta Birru, county development director for Allegheny County at the time of the ground-breaking, adds: "He has the energy to move a mountain."

In a very real sense, that's just what Ferrone and the earth-moving crew are doing. They are preparing the land for a new airstrip that will extend 5,000 feet --almost double the size of the existing strip -- and be 100 feet in width. Plans also call for a new terminal building, which will house a restaurant and fuel service company for aircraft, as well as facilities for the two flying clubs that use the airport.

The airstrip and terminal ultimately will be turned over to a public authority as a requirement of receiving state and federal grants that are available to improve public-use airports.

But the biggest part of the development is the rest of the land surrounding the airport, which Ferrone hopes to turn into a parklike office complex housing 30 to 40 businesses and providing amenities such as a walking trail, a golf course and even racquetball, to name a few.

"I want it to be a country club environment," Ferrone says.

Ferrone has secured a significant development commitment from Zambrano Corp., which has known the Ferrone family for years, according to Eugene Zambrano III, vice president of Zambrano Corp. and a general partner in the firm's commercial real estate holdings. Zambrano, which provides commercial construction services, owns 16 commercial and residential buildings throughout the Pittsburgh area, including a 70-unit high-rise in Leetsdale, a 10-story, 100,000-square-foot building in Monroeville and a 50,000-square-foot commercial/industrial building in the RIDC Park in O'Hara Township.

"What we bring to the deal is 40-plus years and tons of real estate development credibility," Zambrano says.

For starters, Zambrano plans to build a 25,000-square-foot headquarters building for its own company, which currently is located in Sharpsburg. The firm is doing so on a five-acre parcel it purchased from Ferrone. Zambrano says the company will use three of the acres for its headquarters and the other two for other "real estate investment."

Zambrano says he reacquainted himself with Ferrone last year after seeing a cover story about him in the November issue of SBN. From that point, Ferrone took him for a ride to the airport for an early look.

"As soon as we drove up there last November, it's like I got it -- I understood," Zambrano says of Ferrone's vision for the property. "He's a fireball and a great entrepreneur."

Zambrano and Ferrone also have entered into an agreement to jointly develop a 52,000-square-foot flex-space office building on speculation and are in discussions for others.

Moreover, Zambrano Corp. is in line to provide construction services for any third-party developers who plan to purchase land in the air park for office buildings. Zambrano won't disclose specifics, but he says he's in discussions with at least seven people who have expressed an interest in building.

Says Zambrano: "Right now the action is fast and furious." Ferrone, himself, plans to build a new headquarters and manufacturing facility there for Rock-Built sometime "in the middle of next year." He also has plans to build a new home on the property which would allow him to taxi from the runway right to his home. Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.