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Voters clear on airport: Keep it

Nearly three-quarters vote to preserve Albert Whitted rather than back a proposal for a waterfront park.

CARRIE JOHNSON
Published November 5, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Albert Whitted Airport, a city landmark for decades, will have a permanent home on the changing downtown waterfront.

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a plan to keep the airport open and resoundingly rejected a proposal to replace it with a waterfront park.

The City Charter amendment to keep Albert Whitted won the support of about three out of four voters.

"We've always said this is the community's airport," said Jack Tunstill, a leading advocate for the airport, who was surrounded by cheering fans at Albert Whitted on Tuesday night. "This just shows the desire of the people of St. Petersburg to keep this valuable asset."

The park proposal, created by a coalition of activists called Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, failed to connect with residents, winning only about 22 percent of the vote.

Fondness for the small airport and respect for its historical value were the reasons most frequently cited by those who voted to support it.

"It's just good to have someplace like that in St. Petersburg," said Holly Brown, 22, a University of South Florida student who voted at Shore Acres Recreation Center. "It makes the city unique."

Others said they feared waterfront condo development if Albert Whitted was destroyed.

"I think we have enough condos," said Gene Wolk, who has lived in St. Petersburg since 1968. "I think the way downtown has changed is wonderful, and I support what they have done with the condos along Beach Drive. But that should be enough."

Mayor Rick Baker, who announced his intention to vote "no" on all three ballot questions to give residents more time to discuss the best use for the airport property, said the results didn't rule out his compromise to close one of the airport's runways and sell dozens of acres for development. The plan is under review by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I think there's plenty of room for discussion for what the airport should be," Baker said Tuesday night. "And I think all interested parties need to be involved in that discussion."

It may be a difficult sell for the mayor. Some voters expressed frustration with Baker and his one-runway plan, saying they wished he had taken a firmer position during the campaign.

"He tried to compromise," said Jim Robinson, a former state legislator who voted at the Science Center of Pinellas County. "You can't compromise on an airport."

Members of the Albert Whitted Political Action Committee said they wanted not just to win, but to send a message to the mayor to discourage him from pursuing the compromise after the election.

"I think the public issued a mandate to the city administration today," said Ruth K. Varn, who has worked to defend the airport for more than 21 years. "The people have said they want an airport, and they want it improved."

About 35,000 of the city's 144,000 registered voters, or about 24 percent, participated in the election, a lighter turnout than many expected. With only two contested City Council races, there was little beyond the airport issue to lure voters to the polls. An early afternoon rain shower may also have kept some people at home.

With a recent St. Petersburg Times poll showing support for the airport at 70 percent, others may have believed the election was already decided, said Bill Anderson, precinct captain at Walter Fuller Recreation Center.

The debate over the airport property has simmered for decades. City officials began proposing alternative uses for the desirable piece of waterfront land as early as 1935.

The latest challenge grew out of a proposal by Ron Barton, the city's economic development director, who suggested building an "urban village" on the airport property. His plan, which included townhomes and restaurants, was unanimously rejected by the City Council in November 2002.

A group of local activists was angered by the council's refusal to discuss alternatives to the airport. They formed Citizens for a New Waterfront Park and launched a petition drive in May to qualify their plan for the 2003 ballot.

The City Council responded by creating questions that would allow voters to protect the airport and permit the city to continue accepting 20-year federal grants for its maintenance and operation.

Albert Whitted supporters formed a political action committee, and received a major boost from a national pilots' organization that pledged up to $100,000 for an advertising blitz.

Early in the campaign, airport proponents painted the waterfront park proposal as a front for development, a tactic that proved surprisingly effective.

Park advocates argued repeatedly their plan offered more protection from residential development than current laws, even putting the phrase "No Condos" on their yard signs and campaign literature. But they were never able to convince the public.

"They say it will be a park, but it would become condos sooner or later," said William Hart, 73, as he stuck his "I Voted" sticker on the bumper of his Ford Bronco. "Money talks."

Peter Belmont, chairman of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, said he was disappointed by the election's outcome and the negative tone of the campaign. The park proposal received 15,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, but only about half as many votes in the general election.

"Have we had an honest debate?" he asked. "No. I think it was a very disingenuous debate. There was a lot of misinformation."

Airport supporters said the victory was sweet but almost certainly short-lived. Rick Carr, president of the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society, said his organization was already gearing up for the next challenge: persuading the city's administration to fund improvements for the airport, including a new terminal building and a history museum.

"We're not resting," Carr said.

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

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