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Airport in Pasco will close in fall, owner says

The owner, who had grown weary of "a business with so many potential lawsuits," is trying to find a buyer.

By MELIA BOWIE and BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published May 12, 2004

TRINITY - The owner of Tampa Bay Executive Airport says the business will close Oct. 1 and he is already talking to potential buyers of the 75-acre property on the fast growing State Road 54 corridor.

The move, although long expected, was a shock to many in the community and left county leaders wondering how it will affect the area.

On Tuesday, County Commissioner Peter Altman suggested creating a "citizens task force" to review the impact of the airport closure, particularly to Bayflite's air ambulance service. The panel could also consider the possibility of building a new airport, Altman said. Commissioner Ann Hildebrand supported the idea.

But in a county where vacant land easily goes for $40,000 an acre, Commissioner Steve Simon said, a 300-acre airport site could cost $12-million.

"While I feel for the private plane owner ... I don't think the county's responsibility is to provide a facility for that," he said.

Commissioners will decide whether they want to create the task force at a future meeting.

Meanwhile, airport owner Lew Friedland said he intends to sell the site. Friedland is president of Seven Eagles Inc., which owns Tampa Bay Executive and is an affiliate of the companies developing Trinity Communities.

"We do have some folks who are genuinely interested in the property," he said, although "nobody's talking about building another airport."

In the past five years Tampa Bay Executive, which is home to a Bayflite medical helicopter and about 100 planes and leisure pilots, struggled to remain open.

Two years ago the airport teetered on the brink of closure after fighting to find an insurance carrier following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet fast-paced residential growth surrounding Tampa Bay Executive and road widenings posed further challenges for the airport.

"Everybody knew it was going to close," said Friedland, who has run the business for 19 years. About 30 people work at the airport.

A letter announcing the closure went out to customers earlier this month.

Already several clients have found hanger space at North Tampa Aero Park in Wesley Chapel, where owner Charles Brammer is in the midst of an 89-unit hangar expansion.

"The few that have (come) here were somewhat shocked, but the writing was on the wall for everybody," Brammer said. "They just didn't know when."

Since Friedland took over Tampa Bay Executive in the 1980s, much about the airport remained the same. Hangars and a new building were added, the runway was widened a bit, but "it's not a whole lot different," he said.

But Pasco's building boom was a bust for Tampa Bay Executive. Residential growth surrounding the airport now overwhelms it. The widening of State Road 54 will bring vehicle traffic to the airport's doorstep - posing a liability risk that Friedland said he does not want to take.

"I'm just kinda sick and tired of being in a business with so many potential lawsuits," he said Tuesday. Tampa Bay Executive faced several suits and saw a number of "heartbreaking" crashes and accidents over the years.

Friedland said he wanted to close before SR 54 was widened and we "felt like that gave everybody time to find new headquarters for their planes."

He is working on an agreement to keep Bayflite at the airport, noting it does not need a runway, merely a helicopter pad and an office.

Other departments, such as "the mechanical shop and the flight school are moving their operations to other airports in Pasco County," Friedland said.

Brammer expressed regret at the demise of Tampa Bay Executive - even if it means more business for his business in Wesley Chapel.

"It's just sad to see an airport go," he said.

[Last modified May 12, 2004, 01:56:30]


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