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    Taking off or grounded?

    As borrowed money for Albert Whitted Municipal Airport dwindles, questions about its future arise.

    By LEONORA LaPETER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A plan to extend runways at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport by a length of three football fields into Tampa Bay has reignited a long-simmering discussion over whether the airport should exist at all.

    Already, a group of neighborhood associations wants the city to study whether the airport is the best use of the land, and a local architect has come up with a plan for condominiums and townhomes, dormitories and research and development labs and a park on the land.

    Even the mayor thinks it's time to take a look at it.

    "I think the airport has been an economic driver in the past, but we're in a stage now where we're evaluating new things and it may be time to look at the whole picture," Mayor Rick Baker said. "I think it would be good to have a community discussion about what the airport should be."

    The debate comes at a time when the city must contemplate spending millions of dollars on the 100-acre airport. The city borrowed $6.9-million for new hangars, a new terminal, runway and other improvements to the airport in 1997. All but $1.4-million of that money is gone and the terminal is nowhere near being built.

    The city would have to come up with another $3-million to build the terminal, said city budget director Barry Lupiani.

    In addition, an airport consultant has recommended the city spend up to $35-million on airport improvements, including a runway extension that would bring it 908 feet out into Tampa Bay over the next 20 years.

    This week, the City Council will consider accepting a $516,276 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration for runway lighting improvements, which would require a $200,000 city contribution. Accepting the grant could force the city to keep it an airport or pay back the money.

    Council member Virginia Littrell said she thinks it's time to talk about what's best for the airport land. "We have a wonderful community airport that has served us well," she said. "But we may need to make a decision about actual land use. Is that the best use for it? We may be able to expand the tax base significantly if we develop on that property."

    It's an idea that has been proposed time and again by those who would like to see the airport serve another purpose.

    Architect Tim Clemmons has come up with a plan to turn the area into another downtown neighborhood -- complete with a large hotel, condominiums, townhouses, apartments, restaurants and shops, a day care center, a 35-acre park, and research and development labs and dormitories that would serve the University of South Florida.

    Clemmons, who created his drawings as part of a local gallery exhibit, said he believes the airport is underutilized and benefits just a few -- the 175 owners of private airplanes based there.

    "I think during the next year as we discuss it, you'll see this romantic attachment to the airport," said Kai Warren, president of the Historic Roser Park Neighborhood Association. "But it really is a waste when you think of the possibilities toward assisting revitalization on the south side."

    Airport lovers have heard it all before.

    "I feel a sense of deja vu, like we've been down this road before, because most people don't understand the purpose the airport serves," said Ruth K. Varn, chairwoman of the airport advisory committee. "I think we're the best-kept secret in the city. It's time to make the general public more aware of this so they do understand the flavor of it."

    Varn pointed out that Albert Whitted, considered a reliever airport for the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, supported a combined 100,408 landings and takeoffs in 2000. The National Air Transportation Association, a lobbying group for aviation businesses, named it one of the nation's 100 "most needed" public use airports earlier this year. It was one of 10 to make the list in Florida.

    Varn recently sought support for the airport's proposed 20-year plan from neighborhood representatives, but that move appears to have backfired.

    Council of Neighborhood Associations president Jimmy Biggerstaff said neighborhood association representatives supported expanding the airport runway by 250 to 300 feet for a safety buffer required by the FAA. But future plans to extend it another 600 feet were just too much for CONA to accept. Its board voted to ask the City Council to turn down the airport master plan and study other uses for the property.

    "As president of CONA, I would rather see $35-million dollars of tax money spent on a park on this land and a mall in the Challenge area than filling in the bay for a larger runway," Biggerstaff wrote.

    With so many issues to consider, the City Council is sure to debate the existence of the airport soon. Some council members said it's time to decide once and for all.

    Council member Bill Foster thinks the airport should remain. But he thinks the city should demonstrate more than a half-hearted commitment to it.

    "It needs to be used as an income generator, and it needs to benefit the entire city," said Foster, who would like one day to attract commercial traffic there. "If that's the direction we're going to take, then we need to enhance it and do what it takes to make it an income generator. Otherwise, we need to scrap the airport, put it on the tax rolls and see that it's properly developed."

    Foster was surprised to learn that just $1.4-million remains to pay for the terminal. The airport is supposed to support itself and it has, for the most part (the city gave it $20,000 to accommodate a shortfall in 2000). But the terminal was supposed to be built by now.

    Airport director M.O. Burgess said money has been spent to design the terminal, but tests on the northwest corner of the airport, where the terminal was to go, showed that the land needed some environmental work. The city spent $380,000 removing waste and petroleum from a portion of a large concrete septic tank, likely built in the 1890s, that was discovered underground.

    Burgess said the airport is producing more revenue now. About $3.6-million of the money borrowed by the city was used to construct 48 new T hangars, storage facilities for private airplanes. The hangars are expected to generate $284,000 this year, up from $91,000 two years ago.

    But Burgess said decisions need to be made.

    "It's at that level," he said. "It's administrative. Where does the airport fit into the other things we have? What kind of priority do we get? I have no idea. I hope we would be a pretty high priority, but that's, you know, because I happen to be the director of the airport."

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