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Whitted terminal delay feels like just that, vendors say

Lease negotiations have lasted at least six months.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - A new terminal at Albert Whitted Airport designed to make the city-owned facility more inviting to the public is still mostly vacant, say potential vendors, who complain that the city is taking too long to settle its lease negotiations.

The $4-million terminal opened in November with one vendor operating on the first floor of the two-story building. City officials hope to fill the rest of the terminal with a restaurant, car rental operation and air charter services.

But most of these lease negotiations have been in the works for at least six months, and discussions over the restaurant deal have stretched out for more than a year.

"That space is sitting there waiting to be utilized, and the city is dragging their feet," said Karla Rissmiller, general manager of Bay Air Charter, a flying enterprise that bid to lease space in the terminal in early 2007 and is still waiting to hear if the city will accept its offer.

"It's money that they could be making, but now nobody is making any money because they aren't getting it done," Rissmiller said.

City officials say it takes time to do things right, and that it isn't their fault that potential vendors have not accepted the contract the city originally drafted.

"Unfortunately, until the city and the vendor come to an agreement, we can't move forward," said Rich Lesniak, airport manager.

Lesniak declined to discuss the disputed terms of the lease, citing the city's right to privately negotiate business deals.

The 10,000-square-foot terminal is part of the city's response to the 2003 referendum vote that residents made to keep and repair the publicly owned airport.

A grant from the Florida Department of Transportation covered most of the cost, with the city and a private donor picking up the rest.

In 2006, city officials entered negotiations to put in an aviation-themed restaurant on the second floor of the terminal. Dale DelBello, owner of Arigato Japanese Steak House, was tapped to operate the restaurant.

DelBello said that he has had several meetings with the city to settle on a contract but that an agreement has yet to be approved. On Friday, city officials were scheduled to meet with DelBello for what was described as another final meeting. That meeting was held after the Neighborhood Times deadline.

Even if the contract were to be settled, DelBello would need to outfit the second floor of the terminal with restaurant equipment before the place could open to the public.

That's bad news for the one vendor operating from the terminal.

"It's like being at a mall and you are the only store that's opened," said Ron Methot, president of St. Petersburg Flying Service, which set up shop at the terminal in November. "It's costing us thousands of dollars a month to not have other tenants in the building. There isn't even a sign on the building, so no one can tell if it's open or not."

Jack Tunstill, chairman of the Albert Whitted Advisory Committee and a flight instructor at the airport, said the city needs to decide once and for all what will happen with the terminal.

"It comes across to us as an uncaring attitude," he said. "It's been 14 months that we have been waiting for this."

Despite the mounting concerns about the terminal's future, the city will celebrate some successes this week.

On Monday, city officials will preside over a dedication ceremony at the terminal.

The City Council will also vote Thursday to approve a lease that would allow Avis Rent A Car System LLC to operate from the terminal.

Lesniak, the airport manager, said the terminal is already starting to draw a new clientele.

"I have seen a little more of a corporate user," he said. "There are more smaller jets and bigger planes than I have seen in the past."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 15, 2007, 21:47:47]


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