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Raceway rejoices as runway grumbles

The Grand Prix has closed a runway at Albert Whitted Airport, to the dismay of pilots. But around the race course, merchants are happy.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Vaughn Harris knew no one would be at City Hall. Monday was Washington's Birthday, and many government offices were closed. He left a message anyway.

Harris, a flight instructor, had just landed with a student pilot on Runway 36 at Albert Whitted Airport.

The airport's other runway is temporarily closed to accommodate the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this Friday through Sunday.

Thanks to a cold front, winds out of the west gusted as high as 22 mph. Harris' single-engine Cessna 172 was nearly blown off the runway on takeoff and landing.

(Runway 36 runs north-south; Runway 24 runs northeast-southwest.)

"Did I get the plane on the ground?" Harris said. "Yes. But it wasn't pretty. I was struggling to hold it, and I've been flying for 23 years. If I had passengers who weren't familiar with flying, they would've been screaming and yelling.

"So I called and told them (City Council members) that for an experienced pilot, it took a lot of work. To a student, it could've been a disaster."

While pilots at Albert Whitted wrestled with winds, merchants downtown were hoping the race will turn a good February into a great one.

"Hopefully, the guys will watch the race while their wives go shopping," said Liliane Vadan, who was working behind the counter at Cherie's Eklektika, a Beach Drive gift shop a few blocks from the race course. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were on the CD player.

February and March are traditionally good months for many downtown businesses. It's the height of the tourist season, and baseball's spring training is in full swing.

"But the race will bring even more people," Vadan said. "All the other businesses along the block are quite excited, no question about it."

The runway question, however, remains open to debate.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has recommended the city shut down the northeast-southwest runway to free some of the city-owned airport land for commercial development and a new public park. He would keep open the north-south runway and extend it.

City Council member John Bryan, a licensed pilot, said his research shows about 78 percent of all airports in Florida have a one-runway system.

"If you're not comfortable with a crosswind component, then stay on the ground," Bryan said. "Just don't go if you're not comfortable, whether it's wind or rain or foul weather or mechanical problems.

"I would say the number of people affected is very minimal," he added. "That would be student pilots in the very early stages of training."

By late Monday, the winds had shifted and calmed.

The forecast for Saturday?

Another cold front.

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