Texas judge sides with Cape, allows Commander eviction to proceed

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A bankruptcy judge in Texas granted a motion Tuesday to allow the city of Cape Girardeau to move forward with plans to evict Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. from city-owned property at the airport.

It was a win for city officials, who have been fighting for months to get the airport manufacturer to vacate a 52,000-square-foot hangar that Commander hadn't paid lease payments on since 2007.

City manager Scott Meyer said officials were pleased with the ruling, but it's part of what could still be a lengthy process.

"It's just another step for us and it's not over yet," he said. "But we're one step closer."

Commander's former company president, meanwhile, saw the ruling as an opportunity to hurl salvos Tuesday at the city for -- in his estimation -- failing to recognize what the airplane manufacturer could have meant to a city with the general aviation industry on the rebound.

"We worked very hard for a long time to figure out how to get somebody to Cape Girardeau to build airplanes," said Joel Hartstone. "It's clear that Cape Girardeau does not want anything to do with an aircraft factory. I think that's a really stupid decision, but that's the decision and I accept it."

Though no longer president, Hartstone is still a major stockholder, creditor and the man tapped in 2008 with finding financing for a purchase of the company.

No one from Commander showed up at the 9:30 a.m. evidentiary hearing in Tyler, Texas, a fact that was duly noted by the city manager.

"It's kind of interesting, the types of things they do have time and effort to do, but when it comes to appearing and making their case in front of a judge, they didn't have time to do that," Meyer said.

Hartstone countered there was no reason for anyone from the company to show up in court to fight to stay in a city that doesn't want it.

"My view of it is, it's over because Cape Girardeau has declared it over and I'm not fighting anymore," he said.

Hartstone said he will now look for an investor to buy the company and they can move it out of Cape Girardeau. Since Cape Girardeau is out of the equation, there has been even more interest in Commander, he said.

"It's not my concern anymore," Hartstone said. "Thank you. You've relieved me of any burden I felt to bring an airplane manufacturer to Cape Girardeau."

The city had hired Mike Gazette, a lawyer based in Tyler, who appeared in court before Judge Bill Parker Tuesday. Parker sided with the city, lifting an automatic stay that Commander had been granted as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

Gazette, in a telephone interview from his Tyler office, said that a judge was expected to enter an order Tuesday afternoon. The order will allow the city to go ahead and file eviction proceedings against the airplane manufacturer that hadn't made lease payments to the city since 2007.

Gazette, too, was pleased with the judge's ruling.

"That's what I was hired to do, was to present the motion and work to get the stay lifted and that's what's been done," he said. "The next phase will be moving back to Missouri."

Meyer said the judge's decision takes the city one step closer to regaining possession of the hangar at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport that has now been home to two failed airplane manufacturers -- Commander and Renaissance Aircraft before that.

But Hartstone said any creditor, company executive or stockholder could individually fight the matter in court. He said he did not know if anyone intended to do that, however.

Hartstone again pointed to what he described as an anti-Commander sentiment that had gained traction in the public's eyes. He said he doesn't see how any new buyer would want to keep a company in Cape Girardeau.

"The attitude has been 'throw the bums out,'" Hartstone said. "I simply deal with reality. I tried right up until Friday to make it work. I'm going to try to find a buyer and I'm going to tell them, 'Cape Girardeau does not want the factory. Would you like to buy it and take it somewhere else?' I've spent all the time I'm going to spend trying to keep it in Cape Girardeau."

But Meyer said the city is simply ready to move on. The fight may have left Texas, but it hasn't left the court system, Meyer said. Meyer said his understanding is that they have to wait 14 days and then file a lawsuit for eviction in Scott County Circuit Court, because the airport is technically in Scott County.

After that, "it will depend on what the court rules," Meyer said. "The court can rule swiftly or consider it awhile."

The battle to get Commander evicted has already taken months. In February, the city gave the struggling airplane manufacturer 60 days to make back payments for the hangar the company has occupied since October 2005. When that didn't happen, the city terminated the lease May 16 and demanded that the property be vacated no more than 30 days later.

On the 31st day, Commander commenced bankruptcy proceedings, which put a halt to the eviction process.

On Sunday, Commander executives sent an open letter to the Southeast Missourian, addressed to Cape Girardeau residents. The letter, written by Hartstone, chided citizens for urging city officials to evict the company. The letter also asked for residents to contact their elected officials to urge them to agree to a last-minute proposal the company offered last week to get more time to find a buyer.

City officials have maintained that Commander owes the city about $1.2 million.

In his letter, Hartstone said that if a deal could not be reached to give the company more time to find an investor and ramp up production, the company would not be interested in staying in Cape Girardeau.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau Regional Airport

Tyler, Texas

Map of pertinent addresses

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