The debate on the survival of Albert Whitted Airport is over. Seven out of 10 St. Petersburg voters said they want to keep the airport open indefinitely, and so the city will be guided by that mandate. The only matters left to be resolved, and they are important ones, are what kind of airport residents want on their downtown waterfront and how much they are willing to pay for it.
Albert Whitted supporters could help the city through the next phase. Part of their effective campaign focused on Albert Whitted's historic past and contributions to the city. If that tone is carried through in public discussions of the airport's future, then the city has a chance to move forward without bitterness or division. (Conciliation is not expressed by an airplane towing a sign that ridicules an organizer of the unsuccessful park proposal, however, as happened on Wednesday.)
Some Albert Whitted advocates have said that their victory is a mandate for an aggressive expansion of the airport. But was it? Even their proposals for a terminal building and history museum, which may be sensible additions to the airport, could cost taxpayers several million dollars. While voters willingly gave up their right to approve future airport grants, those who will be paying the bills should be invited into the process anyway.
No one would deny that the city needs to maintain the airport and make improvements to its appearance and function. Yet the most ambitious plans would create an airport that is far different than the historic Albert Whitted that won voter loyalty. Those plans include an extension of the east-west runway into the bay that could handle jet airplanes, buildings on the site of the Bayfront Center and a park created by filling in part of the bay north of the airport property. Those are issues that would need full public evaluation.
The City Council should set a goal for the next step of planning: a respectful relationship between the airport and its neighbors, especially the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. While some have expressed an inexplicable hostility toward the university, even the most dedicated airport supporter can't deny that USF St. Petersburg is an important contributor to the city's prosperity and quality of life. Peaceful co-existence between the university and airport may not prove to be easy, but a refusal to attempt it would undermine both institutions.
Clearly, St. Petersburg residents want to keep Albert Whitted Airport. That much was settled by the vote Tuesday. Now, we have an opportunity to seek a common vision for the airport that allows the city to move forward.