NORTH ADAMS — After months of uncertainty, Taconic Aviation has been granted space to operate a scenic flight and flight instruction business at Harriman-and-West Airport.
The Airport Commission unanimously granted Taconic Aviation the use of city-owned hangar space at the airport on Tuesday, despite concerns from the public about owner Alex Kelly's personal behavior and criminal history.
The vote set aside a bid by a group of local pilots who had also applied for use of the space.
"Mr. Kelly certainly presents a viable business that has been operating there for quite some time now," said Chairman Jeffrey Naughton, later adding the the pilots club is "in its infancy" and "is not a viable business at this moment."
The city will enter into lease negotiations with Taconic Aviation and the Airport Commission will vote on the proposed agreement at its July meeting.
Throughout the monthslong process the commission has not weighed Kelly's criminal history. City officials have cited Federal Aviation Administration regulations preventing an airport that accepts federal funds from discriminating against a federally licensed aviation business.
But several members of the public — allowed to speak only during an open forum period after the commission had already voted on the matter — expressed concerns about Kelly's past and having him operate in North Adams.
Kelly was released in 2007 after he spent a decade in prison for the 1986 rapes of a 16-year-old girl and 17-year-old within the course of a week.
"Does character not count for anything? I think it's kind of appalling that someone with his record would be welcomed with open arms," said resident Barbara May.
Though he declined to comment to reporters following the Tuesday meeting, he told The Eagle last month that "I've done my time" and that his criminal history should not factor into the Airport Commission's decision.
In a brief compromise at its May meeting, the Airport Commission had granted Kelly temporary use of the office space in the hangar building until a final vote in June.
In the meantime, the commission asked the three interested parties — Kelly, Sue Mead and Paul Edwards — to submit any additional details about their plans for the space in writing. (Edwards ultimately did not submit a proposal.)
Kelly, who operates sister companies Taconic Aviation and Green Mountain Skydiving in Bennington, Vt., purchased the assets of Teamflys, a flight school and scenic aviation company based at Harriman-and-West, in December of 2017.
Kelly submitted plans to utilize the small office and classroom space in the city-owned hangar building formerly occupied by Teamflys, but waited as the process of selecting a new tenant stalled for more than six months.
The second competitor for the space was a group of local pilots dubbed the "Greylock Flying Club" led by Sue Mead, which filed paperwork to become a 501(c)(7) social club nonprofit and use the area as more of a pilots club. The proposal includes storage of aviation gear, flight training materials, a flight simulator and other functions aimed at helping the airport run smoothly.
The group, which has painted the airport community as being "under attack," quickly raised more than $5,000 via a GoFundMe page created by former Airport Commission member Trevor Gilman.
"Our goal is to be a positive force at the airport, as we said in our letter to you," Mead said on Tuesday.
Commission member Dean Bullett lamented how both written proposals disparaged the opposing party, and expressed concern that public space would become de facto private space in the hangar building.
In response, Kelly promised the building is open.
"It's wide open to everybody, we have people coming and going. We'll invest in furniture. It is open space," Kelly told the Commission.
During the public comment period, Mead said the club did not immediately want the space and implored the commission to only lease it to Kelly through October 31.
"Consider his behavior and the circumstances that take place over the next few months at the airport," Mead suggested. "I know he's brought in business, but there's a lot of controversy that has surrounded it."
The club is interested in holding social events to keep the aviation community "healthy and engaged," she said.
"We would like to ensure we have the space and availability to do that without the fear of intimidation or discomfort," Mead said.
The handful of public commenters at Tuesday's meeting were unanimously opposed to leasing Kelly the space.
Resident Joseph Smith expressed concern that the city could open itself to legal liability if it grants use of the space to Kelly. Smith alleged Kelly may have failed to register as a sex offender in accordance with state law when he began operating a business in Massachusetts and suggested Kelly should be required to notify skydiving customers of his past if granted use of the space.
Smith also noted allegations raised in a 2015 Associated Press report that Kelly allegedly punched one skydiver, grabbed another skydiver's genitals from behind, and threatened a pilot while employed at skydiving club in Connecticut.
"While these accusations appear not to have resulted in any arrests, we should take them seriously based on multiple accusers existing and the applicant's previous conviction history," Smith said.
Erica Manville, a parent and teacher at the Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School, said she would not want kids patronizing Kelly's business.
Speaking on behalf of students and women in the area, Manville said she is "appalled."
"We look at you guys as people that are going to help us be safe," Manville told the commission.
Derek Rougeau argued that because of the space he occupies, Kelly will be the first person that many will see when they arrive at the airport.
"He's infamous. This is going to be the face of the North Adams airport. That's a travesty," Rougeau said.
Kelly spoke briefly during the public comment period.
"Thank you for the warm welcome I've received, you guys are wonderful people — especially you, the one with the tongue out, you're a really good looking man," Kelly said toward a man in the audience.
Kelly said he would operate a professional business in North Adams and it would be "very successful."
Not coincidentally, the meeting included the announcement of the resignation of Airport Manager Willard Greenwald.
Greenwald told The Eagle he had approached Naughton with his intentions to resign in May and agreed to stay on through June.
The Airport Manager earns a $6,000 annual stipend, but Greenwald grew tired of an increasingly contentious airport community.
"I did it for fun," Greenwald said. "This was all about improving a great little airport."
Greenwald also expressed frustration with the FAA for "hogtying the commission" and holding it back from taking Kelly's past into consideration.
Gilman warned the Airport Commission that Greenwald's departure is "the most dangerous thing that's happened at this airport since I've been here," and urged the commission to hire a full-time manager.
"I don't think any of you four have any idea what really the airport manager does at that airport," Gilman said. "I think you're going to be overwhelmed when you see the list of duties that's provided by [Greenwald]."
The municipal airports in Bennington, Vt., and Pittsfield have full-time employees, Gilman argued.
"I think you're in way over your head because you don't even know how to discuss the topics, with no knowledge and no one to point to," Gilman said.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.