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    Letters to the Editors

    St. Petersburg should preserve its airport

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 20, 2002

    Let's keep Albert Whitted. Don't let the developers get the land. While some of it may become a park, the majority is likely to be turned into $400,000 luxury townhomes. How affordable will that be to the average citizen?

    Airports have the image of being playgrounds for the rich. Is this really true? Lots of the people at the airport are just trying to make a living and prepare for a career in aviation. These are people like flight instructors, mechanics, and linemen who pump gas and move airplanes around the ramp. People who rent airplanes from the flying club. People who really can't afford to but own an airplane anyway. None of these people are rich. They're there because they share a dream and a love of flying.

    I learned to fly at Albert Whitted Airport. I was a flight instructor and charter pilot there for several years before moving up. Now I fly for a major airline. I'm not the only one who started his career at Albert Whitted. Although I'm based in Chicago, I live in the St. Petersburg area and commute. I live here because of the area's unique blend of attractions. The bay area is full of pilots just like me. To many of us in the airlines, small community airports are where it all began. Getting rid of the airport will force young people who are committed to a career in aviation to move away. That will be St. Petersburg's loss.
    -- Bob Hodgen, Gulfport

    Waterfront land has great potential

    Re: The waterfront's future, March 18.

    Thank you for your informative editorial regarding St. Petersburg's presentation of potential uses for the waterfront land occupied by Albert Whitted Airport and your support for considering alternate uses of this immensely valuable and irreplaceable resource.

    As reported by you, Ron Barton, the city's economic development director, offered a shopping list of spaces without fences, runways, hangars, or "keep out" signs, with room for expansion of the University of South Florida campus, and the possible generation of tax revenues from controlled housing development. This is exciting.

    I am distressed that City Council members James Bennett, Earnest Williams and Bill Foster, as you point out, have no inclination to consider anything other than pouring huge amounts of public money into maintaining a marginally useful airport that is apparently unable to support itself, with little benefit to the general public.

    Your appeal to the city's residents to ask what kind of downtown we may want for the next generation will only be an exercise in futility if our elected representatives are not going to pay heed.
    -- Tom Ziebold, St. Petersburg

    Don't expect lower taxes

    This Albert Whitted Airport helps attract the kind of people who build industry and provide jobs. This means a growing tax base, which holds down taxes as well as provides jobs.

    Our taxes will not be reduced if Albert Whitted is eliminated and redeveloped. Politicians just don't do this. In fact, our taxes may go up because of huge upfront costs and environmental risks.

    Instead of changing Albert Whitted, long-term planning should be focused on other sites that are not already wonderful assets. Albert Whitted already provides a unique waterfront area with open spaces much like a park. Redevelopment is not going to improve it or lower anybody's taxes.
    -- Sterling Weems, St. Petersburg

    Change could benefit whole city

    I have read with great interest the growing debate about the future of Albert Whitted Airport. I question the economic impact of the airport to the city of St. Petersburg and don't believe that the vast majority of our citizens receive any benefit from the continued use of this valuable, publicly owned land as an executive airport.

    I live near downtown and have had occasion to utilize the airport for chartered business flights. I have also used St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Business jets are not able to land and take off at Albert Whitted. The terminal and runways were sleepy at best. Driving to St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport added 10 minutes to my itinerary, which served my needs adequately.

    It seems to me that few local nonaviation businesses depend on the airport downtown in a meaningful way. It largely serves amateur, leisure pilots rather than business flights.

    Taxes in St. Petersburg's neighborhoods are often 50 percent higher than similar homes in neighboring jurisdictions. We can't afford to waste the city's financial assets if the benefit to the community at large is so narrow and serves so few citizens.

    In my opinion, the city would be much better served to redeploy the airport land with these goals:

    Expand citizen access to our spectacular waterfront by creating a linear park with bike trails and other active recreational uses.

    Sell some of the land to property developers for creation of a new downtown residential enclave based on a master plan created with ample citizen input. Utilize the sales proceeds to fund the new public improvements and the annual property taxes generated to reduce citywide taxes or meet other city needs.

    Reserve some of the land for the University of South Florida to expand its St. Petersburg campus or to attract or expand a major employer.

    BayWalk and other recent improvements to downtown have proved that the community supports change so long as it is respectful of the character of St. Petersburg. This would be a change that would benefit the entire city.
    -- Jay L. Miller, St. Petersburg

    Other land is available for development

    Re: Whither Albert Whitted? March 14.

    I see the ownership of the Times is after the airport again for fun and their profit. All of us who have been here more than 30 years have witnessed the attempts of the paper to grab the airport land by running front-page articles supporting its agenda and greed.

    I am not a pilot or owner of planes, nor do I charter them. I have no financial interest in aviation, nothing to personally gain or loose regarding Whitted's fate. Except that -- as a long-term St. Petersburg taxpayer and active citizen -- I know that airport is vital to this community. I am a commercial real estate veteran.

    We don't need that airport land to expand the commercial or residential development of downtown. There are thousands of perfectly good cheap acres just to the west of the medical centers and the Times' properties to be developed. Reclaiming the blighted areas as downtown Tampa has done (Performing Arts Center).

    Go west young men (and women) and leave alone an irreplaceable asset to the city and south county that becomes more and more important each year to our future. VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft will one day make that airport an even better jewel this city has for economic stability.
    -- Dick Schultz, St. Petersburg

    City is at a critical juncture

    Re: The waterfront's future.

    Having moved to St. Petersburg from Los Angeles a decade ago, I wish to applaud the Times for bringing to the public's attention the efforts of economic development director Ron Barton to return Albert Whitted Airport to the city's residents, to whom it belongs.

    I have either lived in or spent considerable time in many of the so-called jet-set destinations of the world, and have become increasingly excited, even thrilled, to witness and participate in the reincarnation of St. Petersburg into one of the world's most beautiful cities. This city's waterfront, with the exception of a single blight, is unsurpassed anywhere I've been, in its combination of natural beauty and tasteful urban development. That exception? Albert Whitted Airport, which serves one out of every 10,000 St. Petersburg residents at best.

    The idea of returning that prime extensive space to the city's rightful owners (the vast majority of residents are currently barred from access) as park and living space, bringing in a much-needed $20-million a year in property taxes, is a no-brainer -- to everyone, that is, except those City Council members and public officials whose interests apparently lie elsewhere. To ignore the public interest (yet again) and worse, impose a multimillion-dollar tax increase on the rest of us for the benefit of a few rooftop fliers, is a flight of reckless fantasy that needs to be shot down, and now.

    Los Angeles made too many such vision-impaired mistakes in its past, which present-day generations can barely live with. It would be tragic should the city of St. Petersburg fail to to live up to its new-found potential at such a critical juncture.
    -- Gene Ayres, St. Petersburg

    Where will the water come from?

    You offer column-inch after column-inch of reporting about the future of Albert Whitted, and now your lead editorial advocates its closing in favor of parkland and more development. Yet there is not one word about water.

    Now I'm no tree-hugging environmentalist wacko, but I am a 30-year resident of St. Petersburg, and the last time I checked we were still under severe water restrictions. The city even subsidizes low-flow toilets for residents.

    Yet the developers are going full-throttle, building bigger, taller, more dense living units at the very heart of our city. Hundreds of units are under construction. Hundreds more are on the drawing boards. Who's going to supply all the water that's going to be flowing from thousands of faucets, flushed down thousands of toilets, poured into countless swimming pools and spas, and showered over thousands of people who've probably never even heard of a "Navy shower," much less taken one?
    -- Paul S. Cooper, St. Petersburg

    Downtown Partnership is neutral

    Re: Whither Albert Whitted?

    The prominent story about the future of Albert Whitted Airport in your March 14 edition is a welcome addition to the important community discussion now under way. However, the context of my quote to Brian Gilmer (author of the piece) may give an erroneous impression.

    The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership has carefully carved out a role of neutrality in this review about the future of all city facilities along the downtown waterfront, in an effort to support the city administration and City Council by identifying all relevant points of view and assuring that all options and their impacts are understood fully prior to any public policy decisions. This has not been an easy task, as there are many valid considerations across a wide spectrum of opinion.

    While Mr. Gilmer's account of our conversation is certainly accurate, it was positioned in the news item in such a way as to imply that the Downtown Partnership has a specific position other than serving as a vehicle for healthy debate. Thank you for this opportunity to clarify things.
    -- Don Shea, executive vice president, St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, St. Petersburg

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