City still looking longingly at airport
By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- City officials haven't given up on redeveloping Albert Whitted Airport despite a stern letter from the Federal Aviation Administration last month.
Some people say that the FAA letter "closes the door to any alternative (to the airport occupying the land)," said Deputy Mayor Tish Elston. "I don't know that I would necessarily interpret it that way. I think you're looking at what decisions should you be making so that in the future you can make a smart decision for the city."
Even airport supporters acknowledge that the letter doesn't scuttle the idea of turning the 110 waterfront acres into something besides an airport.
"We're not out there running around jumping up and down," said Whitted supporter Jack Tunstill. "We have the same actors involved. We're maintaining vigilance."
The FAA letter said the city "is obligated to operate" the airport for 20 more years because it took airport grant money from the federal government.
But in a similar situation in 1998, Kansas City, Mo., was able to negotiate around the restrictions and close an airport there. All it took was a Washington, D.C., lawyer, millions of dollars and a court fight that bred political bitterness that still remains.
As the debate over St. Petersburg's publicly owned airport moves forward, this much is clear: Redeveloping the airport is not impossible, but it would be costly, time-consuming and politically sensitive.
Economic development director Ron Barton says turning Whitted into a new neighborhood and parks would boost the economy by millions of dollars a year. That's what happened in Kansas City and in Fall River, Mass., another town that closed its airport and converted it to other uses.
"It's a process," said Washington aviation attorney Robert E. Cohn, who helped Kansas City negotiate with the FAA. "The process requires . . . principally that the closure of the airport would benefit civil aviation."
Kansas City wanted to close Richards-Gebaur Airport and turn the property into a rail-truck freight terminal. The "net benefit to aviation" ended up being cash that the city agreed to invest in other airports.
"We had to reimburse the FAA for all the previous outstanding grants, $5-million, and interest," said Russell Widmar, Kansas City's aviation director. "There was a second requirement that all of the money generated from the railroad lease would have to go into a fund to pay for improvements for general aviation."
That will be about $700,000 this year, and the annual payment will slowly escalate to $1-million. Because Kansas City owns two other airports, the FAA allows it to invest the money there.
St. Petersburg has no other airports. Any deal would require an investment in other airports, one big enough to provide a greater benefit to aviation than Albert Whitted does now, Cohn said.
"The FAA has got a lot of discretion to determine what is a net benefit," he said. "They are highly reluctant to close airports."
Political clout in Washington helps "absolutely," Cohn said. And St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has ties to President George W. Bush and to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Neither Baker nor Young has decided whether to support redeveloping the airport.
"The congressman hasn't really explored that because no one from the city has asked him to," said Young's press secretary, Harry Glenn.
But the fight likely wouldn't end at the FAA.
Even after Kansas City won over the federal agency, local pilots and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association challenged the FAA's decision in court. The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the FAA's decision and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it. All that took three years.
In St. Petersburg, Tunstill's volunteers lead the well-organized group of pilots and other people who want to keep the airport. National AOPA leaders also are monitoring the situation.
"There is the possibility that they would find a way to do it, but it's going to be extraordinarily tough," said Warren Morningstar, the organization's spokesman.
He said the AOPA could decide to send attorneys in to fight any decision to close Whitted.
"Is it worth the taxpayers' money to fight it?" Morningstar asked. "I guarantee you it would be tough."
When an airport closes, crews replace the huge numbers at each end of its runways with giant, yellow X's as a warning to pilots not to land.
The freight terminal is a success in Kansas City. Fall River, Mass., closed its municipal airport in 1996, and economic development director Kenneth Fiola Jr. raves about the decision. Fall River had an easier time because there were no grant requirements to get around, he said.
"The 160-acre airport was being utilized essentially by 40 people, recreational fliers," Fiola said. "A University of Massachusetts report showed we could clearly achieve a better use of that property for economic development."
Now the former airport holds factories that brought in 1,200 new jobs, with at least 800 more to come, Fiola said.
In St. Petersburg, Barton has said redeveloping just 70 acres of the waterfront Whitted land could produce a new neighborhood worth an estimated $814-million and bring in some $20-million per year in new property tax revenue.
Now, 164 small planes are based there, and the city collects no taxes.
Before any redevelopment, the city would have to remove a sewage treatment plant from the site. Officials don't know how much that could cost.
Joe Zeoli, managing director for the city development administration, cautions that for now the city is investigating its options and has yet to decide whether to challenge the FAA.
"We really are trying to just make sure all the information is in on both sides," he said.
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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