Officials glean ideas for airports

Citrus leaders take notes during a tour of Hernando County's flourishing airport facility. The goal: similar success here.

Published February 9, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - As a bus packed with Citrus County officials drove around Hernando's airport business parks Thursday morning, Brett Wattles remained quiet for most of the ride.

But when the Citrus County Economic Development Council's executive director spoke out, his point was clear.

Pointing toward fiber-optic cable manufacturer CompuLink's office, Wattles said: "They could not find what they needed in Citrus County, so they came here."

And so did dozens of other companies. They make sausages and skin lotion, parts for surgical tools and ice cream machines. The Suncoast Parkway, rail lines and several runways are nearby to ship materials all over the world.

It's the perfect combination, said Michael McHugh, director of Hernando's Office of Business Development. And it's growing, bringing tax dollars and new jobs to the 2,400-acre airport facility in the heart of Hernando County's business sector.

Citrus County's Crystal River and Inverness airports are only a small fraction of that size. But members of the Citrus EDC, which sponsored Thursday's airport tour, said Citrus can learn from Hernando's approach.

For nearly two hours, McHugh told several business success stories and explained the history of the sprawling airport facility.

Hernando County acquired the former World War II bomber training ground in the 1950s. In the 1980s, nonaviation developments started to crop up in the original industrial park area, he said.

"There were many lean years at the airport," McHugh said. "It is not an overnight success."

But when the Suncoast Parkway came through Hernando, he said, the airport's industrial park really took off.

Now there are also corporate and rail parks next to the airport. The average building size is 20,000 to 30,000 square feet, he said.

And the entire airport facility is self-sustaining.

"Our citizens that don't use the airport don't pay for it, either," McHugh said.

Inverness City Council member Sophia Diaz-Fonseca asked whether Hernando offers incentives to businesses to lease space there.

Yes, McHugh said, but only for companies that can document that they meet certain requirements. Incentives include decreased building permit and impact fees.

After McHugh's presentation and tour, Citrus officials said they were impressed.

County Commissioner John Thrumston said the county needs to come up with a plan to reach similar results.

"This is wonderful down here," Crystal River Airport operator Tom Davis said, but he noted that Citrus airports are significantly smaller.

Commissioner Joyce Valentino said she agreed.

"We just don't have it. Our airports could never expand that way," she said.

Davis nodded.

"But, we need to do better with what we have," he said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.