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Albert Whitted supporters battle image

Those who hope to keep the airport say they aren't all pilots or rich. Opponents say they aren't open or truthful.

By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published September 28, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Rick Carr was a toddler when his father took him to Albert Whitted Airport and flew him high above the coastline in a Piper Tri-Pacer.

Carr's uncles learned to fly at Whitted, and he took lessons at the downtown airstrip when he was 16. Today, the 46-year-old pilot keeps his twin-engine Comanche in one of the airport's corrugated metal hangars.

To him, the idea of St. Petersburg without Albert Whitted Airport is almost unthinkable.

"I love this airport with a passion," said Carr, president of the Albert Whitted Preservation Society. "It means a lot to me. I never want to see it go away."

Carr launched the nonprofit organization in April to counter a group of local activists who want to replace Whitted with a 60-acre waterfront park. Voters will be asked to choose between the airport and the park during the Nov. 4 election.

Carr and his followers say they have been misrepresented during the fight over the airport's future. They say they are not the elitists portrayed by critics, nor are they all pilots. Many simply have fond childhood memories of watching planes land in downtown St. Petersburg.

"We have huge grass roots support," Carr said. "I can't tell you how many $5 and $10 checks we have received."

They are unquestionably devoted. The supporters, many in their 60s and 70s, have endured long City Council meetings, spent hours explaining their position to neighborhood associations and worked zealously to recruit others to their cause.

But some in the community accuse them of twisting the facts to bolster their position, particularly the claim that replacing Whitted with a park will lead to development along the waterfront.

"They think there's a lot of mileage in lying about that," said Tim Clemmons, a member of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, the coalition that put the park option on the ballot. "And it's simply not true. To me, it's pretty insulting."

They also are accused of skirting election laws by refusing to make their list of donors public, disclose how much money they have raised or label their yard signs as paid political advertisements.

Carr said they have done nothing wrong.

"I believe with all my heart that I am doing the right thing," he said. "I have nothing to gain by doing this other than knowing that my son may some day be able to take flying lessons at Albert Whitted."

* * *

The Preservation Society is one of two organizations created to support the airport. The other is the Airport Advisory Committee, formed in the late 1980s by then-Mayor Robert Ulrich to serve as a liaison between the airport and the city.

Members share a vision for Whitted's future. Dubbed the "Airpark Plan," the airport would feature a new terminal, a restaurant and a history museum. The plan also includes a 908-foot extension of the northeast-southwest runway into Tampa Bay, but supporters say that option would be pursued only if it were environmentally feasible.

City officials estimate the cost of the enhancements at $38-million. More than $30-million would be paid for with state and federal grants.

Like Carr, many of the activists have a personal connection to the airport. Jack Tunstill, the Advisory Committee's vice chairman, is a longtime pilot who now works as a flight instructor for Bay Air. Others, such as Cooper Petagna and James D. Thompson, who are both members of the Advisory Committee, keep planes at Whitted.

But not all of their members have a direct connection to aviation. Ruth Varn, the chairwoman of the Advisory Committee, was motivated by anger at the St. Petersburg Times' editorial board. For decades, the board has advocated eliminating the airport.

"I felt the Times was spreading misinformation," Varn said. "In my book, that is unethical."

Others point to the airport's history. It is the site of the first regularly scheduled commercial flight. National Airlines, one of the nation's first airlines, began service here in 1934.

"The airport has been here before any of us were born," said Kay Kyser, a member of the Preservation Society. "Let's just leave it alone."

One of their most persistent arguments against replacing the airport with a park is that it would clear the way for a wall of condominiums along the downtown waterfront.

Park advocates say that's wrong. Their proposal states 60 acres of the airport property must be used for park land. The remaining 60 acres could not be sold or leased for more than five years without a public referendum.

But Carr argues that destroying the airport could lead to the development of high-rise towers near the site because height restrictions on surrounding buildings would be removed.

"By its very nature, an airport keeps the property around it low-rise," he said.

* * *

The gold and black yard signs that read "Support Albert Whitted Airport" started popping up in January. Just a few at first, but they quickly multiplied. Now there are more than 1,500 across the city, stuck in well-manicured lawns, hanging from boat docks and posted in downtown storefronts. There's even a bumper sticker.

The signs were initially created by the Advisory Committee as a fundraising tool, said Tunstill. The money was used to offset the cost of a March 29 air show at the airport. The signs sold for about $10, Tunstill said.

Carr's group, the Preservation Society, took over production and distribution of the signs in April. They cost about $3 to make and are now free for anyone who requests one.

Peter Belmont, president of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, said those signs are a paid political advertisement and should be accordingly labeled.

"I trust that your organizations will comply with the requirements of Florida's elections laws, including the removal of all signs that do not carry the proper disclosure and the filing of campaign finance reports," Belmont wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to Tunstill and Carr.

Leaders of the Advisory Committee and the Preservation Society have refused to say how much money they have raised or who has contributed to their cause. They say they don't have to disclose that information because their mission is educational, not political.

Carr would reveal the number of people who have donated to the Preservation Society: more than 400, so far.

"The PACs are the ones who get out and tell you how to vote," Carr said. "We'll help educate you, but we can't tell people how to vote."

Belmont is skeptical.

"If they're trying to say they're strictly educational, it ain't even close," he said.

* * *

Under Florida law, a political committee that expects to receive more than $500 per year is required to register with the Division of Elections. A political committee is defined as two or more people who accept contributions and spend money with the purpose of supporting or defeating a candidate or issue.

Political advertisement is defined as a paid expression in any communications media. However, this rule does not apply if the issue is not on the ballot.

And until recently, there was no ballot question. After months of bickering over language, the City Council on Sept. 18 created two questions that will allow voters to keep the airport.

The first question asks: "Should Albert Whitted Airport remain open forever by amending the City Charter to require retention of an airport?"

The second question deals with whether city officials can continue to accept 20-year grants to pay for the airport's maintenance and operation.

Five days after the council made its decision, a group of airport supporters filed with the city clerk's office to create a political action committee. The committee will work to advance the ballot questions that would save the airport and defeat the waterfront park option.

The committee will follow campaign law by reporting all donations and labeling all political advertisement.

Airport advocates maintain the political action committee is the only group that should be subject to scrutiny. Belmont disagrees. He said his organization will meet this week to discuss possible action, including filing a formal complaint with the state Elections Commission.

Carr said he's not worried.

"We encourage a challenge," he said. "We have been extremely careful with everything we have done."

- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 01:49:44]


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