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Airport gets boost from aviation group

Albert Whitted, under scrutiny by some mayoral candidates, is named a "most-needed'' public-use airport.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


An occasional article about activity on the south Pinellas County waterfront.

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ST. PETERSBURG -- A national aviation lobbying group has named Albert Whitted Airport one of the nation's 100 "most needed" public-use airports, one of 10 designated in Florida.

James K. Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, made the announcement Tuesday after piloting a Beechcraft into the airport. He flew up from Naples, whose municipal airport was named to the NATA roster, too.

Coyne is a powerful ally for Albert Whitted boosters, who are seeing ongoing improvements to the airport and are in the middle of updating its master plan. Coyne is a former member of Congress who also served in the Reagan administration. He promised to help on the federal level as airport boosters contemplate future improvements.

Coyne spoke to an audience of about 70 in the Port of St. Petersburg's headquarters, just across Eighth Avenue SE from Albert Whitted. The occasion smacked of a small celebration. Former mayor Bob Ulrich, who was a U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot, acted as master of ceremonies. Many attending were aviation entrepreneurs or enthusiasts.

Not everyone was cheering, however.

Mayoral candidate Omali Yeshitela said the airport is used only by a "small group of well-connected people" and asked what benefit Albert Whitted offers that is not offered at either Tampa or St. Petersburg-Clearwater International airports.

Responded Coyne: "There's a huge difference for many people in the time savings," referring to people who may be bound for downtown St. Petersburg.

Other mayoral candidates had questions, too. Kathleen Ford wondered how residents might see "fair market value" in the 117-acre airport, Maria Scruggs Weston asked if NATA has "addressed issues of broader use" by more residents.

Coyne said his group is developing a "community tool kit," a collection of ideas to help small airports market themselves, and he touted economic development that airports such as Albert Whitted are credited with bringing to communities. Developers and big business-builders particularly like the pocket airfields, he said.

NATA cites several criteria it used in choosing airports for "most needed" status, among them what the organization sees as expected airport growth, use, regional significance, current insufficient capacity and political opposition.

Coyne also suggested an effort should be made to establish a branch of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, an aviation school in Daytona Beach, at or near the airport.

The Top 100 announcement is good timing for airport boosters. Albert Whitted is undergoing a $7.6-million renovation project that will produce 50 new hangars and a new terminal at the airport's northwest corner.

Meanwhile, the airport's technical advisory committee has been updating the master plan for the 72-year-old airport. A consultant's early proposals included a runway extension into Tampa Bay to accommodate larger aircraft, an idea some on the committee didn't like because of environmental considerations.

It was clear Coyne expects Albert Whitted to expand and that he wanted the mayoral and City Council candidates present to absorb his remarks.

"As this airport grows and faces the need for future funding, I hope political leaders will get behind it," Coyne said.

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A 303-foot ocean-going barge docked at the port last week after unloading boats and other containerized cargo in Tampa.

The Winbuild 303, whose home port is Singapore, is termed a RORO barge. Acronymically speaking, it means workers can roll on cargo, then roll it off at the vessel's destination.

Port operations director Nick Christensen is looking to build a steady business from barges essentially needing a place to park between missions. The dock fees are considered relatively cheap in marine circles, Christensen says; a big barge like the Winbuild 303 typically generates $140-$150 a day for the city.

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