Development officials blast Freewing in letter


Carroll's Industrial Development Authority dealt fairly with Freewing Aerial Robotics, a company that was often difficult and demanding, IDA officials said yesterday.

In a letter to local newspapers, IDA officials detailed their version of the Freewing negotiations, saying the experimental aircraft company was offered six properties and made unreasonable demands regarding the environmental safety of one.

"It's high time that the public heard the Carroll County side of it," IDA chairman Arthur A. Peck said in an interview yesterday afternoon. "All the media has presented is Freewing's side of it, and the letter is an attempt to clarify that the county has negotiated in good faith."

Yesterday's letter was the first time county officials agreed to reveal their side of the story. Earlier, the IDA and county Economic Development Office repeatedly had said it would be improper to discuss the negotiations with Freewing.

After talks went sour earlier this year, Freewing, which manufactures manned and unmanned aircraft with a movable wing, said the county had negotiated "in bad faith."

The company originally agreed to move from the University of Maryland's business-incubator program in College Park to the Carroll County Regional Airport in February 1993.

With the county's help, it was to build a factory for its products.

"No less than six sites and three buildings have been considered," said Mr. Peck's letter, noting that the county Office of Economic Development initiated the contact with Freewing in February 1992.

Those sites included five at or adjacent to the Carroll County Regional Airport -- the Fritz farm; the former county recycling barn; rental space and/or property at Quality Glass and Aluminum; lots 12 and 13 in the undeveloped section of the business center; and space at the former Basically Computers site.

County officials also said Freewing looked at the former Snyder Body plant in Hampstead, which was sold before the company received its state funding. Most of the other sites were unacceptable because the owner was not willing to sell or the property was too large, Freewing officials said.

Eventually, the company settled on the former recycling property. After the county applied for a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant for equipment and a $1 million Maryland Industrial Land Act loan to purchase the site and build a facility, Freewing would only sign a five-year lease, the letter said.

"With that amount of money and a partial subordination of that loan toward other loans, they were given a sweetheart deal," Mr. Peck said.

In contrast, Freewing Vice President Odile Legeay said the agreement was a five-year renewable lease up to 20 years, recommended by the company's attorney, Baker and Mackenzie, and accountant Price Waterhouse.

"That issue was settled in July 1993," she said, adding that the state program allows companies to purchase the property anytime within the 20 years.

Price Waterhouse, however, told Freewing that purchasing the building within the first five years would make the company appear fiscally unsound to other investors.

"For a small, start-up company, that appears to be too big of a commitment ," Ms. Legeay said.

Hugh Schmittle, Freewing's president, said, "We were moving to the county for keeps." Why else, he asked, would he and his wife have bought a house in the center of Westminster.

As for the environmental aspects of the property, Mr. Peck said Freewing wanted to "indemnify themselves forever and amen." Waste oil, once collected at the recycling center, was found to have leaked into the ground.

County officials were willing to guarantee that it had been cleaned up, but Freewing would not accept that, Mr. Peck said.

"Freewing wanted that if something turned up as an environmental hazard, even after they'd been there 15 years, that they wouldn't be responsible," Mr. Peck said. "If you're a Carroll County taxpayer, you wouldn't want to accept that kind of responsibility."

Freewing officials have said they only wanted to be protected from existing environmental damage that might be discovered in the future.

Then, county officials were forced to withdraw the offer when they discovered that building on the recycling site would interfere with a precision instrument landing system to be installed within 10 years.

Land at Quality Glass was offered, but Freewing rejected it because company officials said the owner's asking price of $90,000 per acre was more than the appraised value, listed at the county tax office as $121,968 for the 2 acres.

Freewing officials said the MILA program would allow them to pay only appraised value for the land.

"Knowing that the MILA loan program required two appraisals, and knowing that the two most recent sales at the Air Business Center were settled for $92,000 and $98,000 an acre, the IDA felt that the $90,000 per acre asking price was a fair market value and that two professional appraisals would bear this out," Mr. Peck said. "Assessed value is a different reality than appraised value, a point which Freewing continues to interpret as a 'bad faith offer'."

Mr. Peck's letter also said Freewing had negotiated with at least two other counties and both "reported a pattern of difficult and demanding negotiations."

Freewing officials declined to respond to that comment, saying it was a smoke screen.

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