The Hummel Report: Airport Valet Grounded

hummel1Twenty-two years ago Airport Valet Inc. began offering a new – and novel – service for those flying out of the old terminal at T.F. Green Airport: Valet parking for passengers arriving at the terminal. They could drop their car at a booth on the departure level and go.

Owner Bob Horlbogen initially had the blessing of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. But after a very successful first year, the corporation stopped allowing the valets to set up at the terminal, as it was trying to develop its own long-term parking business.

Undeterred, Horlbogen set up shop in nearby off-site lots, before eventually settling in five years ago at property he owned on Airport Road, directly across the street from the north end of Green Airport. What started out as an amicable relationship with the airport has evolved into a legal battle, with Airport Valet filing suit last month against the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, saying it went back on a promise to buy its land for airport expansion – and at the same time has been trying to force the company out of business, even though Airport Valet pays a 12% fee for the right to access airport property with its vans. That’s up from 4% when it started in 1993.

“We were told that Airport Road was going to be relocated and we had to find another location,” Horlbogen said.

The airport had talked about expanding for more than a decade. And while much of that discussion focused on taking houses south of the main runway, Horlbogen said both the Federal Aviation Administration and the airport corporation made it clear the airport expansion plans included taking Airport Valet’s lot on Airport Road. So Horlbogen scrambled to find another location near the airport; no easy feat as he needed five to six acres for parking. In 2012 he signed a lease for property just south of the airport entrance on Post Road, less than a minute’s drive from lot to terminal.

hummel3He figured once he sold the Airport Road lot to the airport corporation, he’d be fine financially. But Horlbogen, in his lawsuit and in a subsequent interview with The Hummel Report, says the airport changed course right after he’d moved operations to Post Road.

“We’re carrying a bank note on the property on Airport Road, we have the property taxes on the Airport Road property, you have the insurance costs, the utility costs, and what we had planned on was the airport taking the property on Airport Road and compensating us for it accordingly, and we would use the income from that to make the move to Post Road,’’ he said.
 But the airport said it wasn’t going to buy the Airport Road lot after all.

Horlbogen has tried – unsuccessfully – to sell the Airport Road lot for three years. Last month, with declining ridership at the airport and unable to pay both a lease and a mortgage, he closed the business – putting more than a dozen full-time people out of work.

hummel2The airport corporation declined our request for an interview, but a spokeswoman issued a statement that says, in part: “The Rhode Island Airport Corporation believes the recent lawsuit filed by Airport Valet is completely without merit and will be vigorously defended in court. In particular, RIAC denies that it sought to put Airport Valet out of business, or that any damages it claimed to have suffered resulted from any action on RIAC’s part.”

Providence Attorney Michael Kelly filed the lawsuit against the corporation. “I find it troubling that a government agency — and all we hear these days is ‘creating jobs, creating jobs’ — would take the attitude that because you’re in competition with our airport parking, we’re going to let you die on the vine, so to speak, and we’re going to put these people out of business.”

Horlbogen, in the lawsuit, says the airport corporation said it would consider buying the property, if Airport Valet stopped doing business.

“We tried to market the property when it became clear the airport corporation didn’t want to take the property for obvious reasons, because we think they wanted to put us out of business. That the was the game plan from day 1.”

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to www.hummelreport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.org.

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