After decades of wrangling, the time has finally arrived to determine the fate of St. Petersburgs downtown airport. Will it remain an airport forever? Or will it become the citys 138th park? Voters decide in a Nov. 4 referendum. What follows is the side of the story you havent heard much from other media, especially the St. Petersburg Times, which has been an opponent of the airport for generations. This is ...
The Case For Albert Whitted Airport
Seventy-five-year-old Albert Whitted, situated on 120 acres of prime downtown waterfront, is a unique St. Petersburg asset. A general aviation airport — one that caters to all air travel other than commercial airlines — is a standard amenity for cities the size of St. Pete, even for most cities half the size of St. Pete. It's like a marina, a golf course. A park. Tampa, for instance, has two general aviation airports.
Albert Whitted is a solid contributor to the city's economy. It attracts business. It adds to the area's array of transportation options. It's home to a variety of important companies and services. It will be an invaluable facility in the event of a natural disaster. And, perhaps most intriguing, the airport could end up a much bigger player in the transportation mix if certain anticipated trends in aviation come to pass in the next couple of decades.
Then why do so many people, including the city's most influential newspaper, want it closed?
Albert Whitted handles roughly 100,000 takeoffs and landings per year, five times more than the average general aviation airport. Nearly half of these operations originate from elsewhere, usually as business trips. Most of the airport's approximately 180 planes are single-engine prop jobs. It currently houses one small jet.
A 1999 city-commissioned study said that Whitted Airport had a $21-million impact on the local economy and supported more than 300 jobs. Airport proponents maintain that those numbers would significantly increase if the city would reverse years of neglect and commit to transforming the dilapidated air depot into a first-rate facility.
A variety of businesses use the airport for regular transportation. Bay Area Flying Service, Albert Whitted's largest tenant, counts among its clients Arthur Rutenberg Homes, Derby Lane, Eckerd College, the Holland & Knight law firm, Pepin Distributors, the Bollitieri Tennis Academy and scores of others. While the facility doesn't rival St. Pete/Clearwater Airport in jetting around big corporate honchos, it does provide a valuable tool for small and medium-size businesses in St. Petersburg.
Whitted also is home to various other activities. Bayflite helicopters park and get serviced there, as do choppers from a number of local TV stations. Companies service, sell, modify and charter aircraft out of Albert Whitted. It's a busy hub for flight training. The Civil Patrol Search and Rescue, a volunteer group, is based at the airport. Sightseeing bi-plane rides emanate from the facility. The Advertising Air Force, which flies banners around the area, headquarters at Whitted.
The airport also will be a crucial asset if a major hurricane rampages through the area. "In South Florida after the major hurricane, the general aviation airports were the first facilities that were open to bring in supplies," says Bill Ashbaker, state aviation manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. "It's foolish for a community not to appreciate that aspect."
Perhaps the most abstract, and in some ways most interesting, reason to save Albert Whitted involves the not-too-distant future. The commercial airlines' "hub-and-spoke" system is widely regarded as slow, antiquated and nearly maxxed out. An article last year in Popular Science said that a trip in a commercial jet averages just 88 miles per hour, door to door. That inefficiency is obviously most pronounced on shorter flights, which an airport like Albert Whitted is ideally positioned to help remedy.
In fact, business travelers have been looking to private air travel more, and aviation experts say the trend will increase. They envision a day when busy execs scoot from city to city in small, quiet jets, touching down at general aviation airports and whisking off to meetings. They see affordable air taxis that can provide service to any of the more than 5,000 public-use airports in the country.
This is not just pie in the sky. NASA, the FAA, and dozens of aviation-related agencies, businesses and universities have developed the Small Airport Transportation System (SATS), with $69-million in funding over the next few years. Its aim is to create a veritable interstate highway system in the sky. Crucial to the network are powerful computers that would coordinate flight plans and help fly the aircraft. No air traffic control towers would be needed. Along with SATS comes a new breed of efficient, cheaper "microjets" that would drastically reduce the cost (and noise) of small aviation. They'll also require shorter runways. Thus far, prototypes have been completed and companies are taking orders. One model, the Eclipse 500, should be certified to fly in December.
Ken Stackpoole, a researcher at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach who is involved in SATS, says, "I bet that if [Albert Whitted] is closed, people will look back in 10, 20 years and say it was not too smart a move."
Even with its myriad uses, Albert Whitted Airport is, at heart, a haven for folks with a passion for flying. These are the people who tend to get short shrift in debate about the facility. The airport's detractors, especially the Times, often characterize it as a "playground for the rich."
This is simply not true.
The average member of the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is a male in his early 50s with a median household income of $80,000. Only 4 percent of AOPA members earn more than $250,000. A cursory look at the Whitted parking lots shows a dearth of Beamers, Benzes and limos. You're more apt to see Saturns or minivans.
Hank Palmer, 83, shares a cluttered metal shed at the airport that costs $400 a month. With his ailing wife in an assisted-living facility, he spends the better part of his days hanging around the hangar, sitting in an old easy chair next to a vintage yellow Piper Cub, reading, tinkering, talking to friends. "I'm sure as hell not rich," he says with the gruff authority of an octogenarian. "There are not a lot of people here who are rich."
Palmer's been grounded for a couple of years, but recently had eye surgery and hopes he'll soon be cleared to fly again. He's used the airport since the '30s, when he was a pilot and mechanic for then-fledgling National Airlines, which was founded at Albert Whitted. Like a lot of airport supporters, Palmer takes pride in the airport's rich history, and how it fits into St. Petersburg's singular tapestry. Commercial aviation was born nearby. On New Year's Day 1914, Tony Jannus flew former St. Pete mayor A.C. Pheil across Tampa Bay, which is widely held to be the first scheduled commercial flight in the world.
Along with the "playground for the rich" argument, airport foes perpetuate the notion that Albert Whitted is a financial drain on taxpayers. In fact, the airport is more or less a break-even proposition, even in its current state of disrepair. What adds substantially to its red ink is a $470,000 annual payment toward a bond issue that was floated in 1997. The $6.9-million in bonds, issued by the city, was used to build new hangars and other improvements. It also earmarked a new terminal, which never broke ground. (Currently, the airport has no terminal; the lobby of Bay Area Flying Services acts as one.) As part of a pre-construction study, contaminated earth was found at the terminal site and required a costly cleanup. Still, the airport budget pays the bond debt, which comprises nearly half of its roughly $1-million annual budget.
"There would be a small surplus if we didn't have the bond debt to pay," says Sheri Weaver, airport operations supervisor.
Instead of looking to close Albert Whitted down, we think the city should be exploring ways to ramp it up. The airport has long added to the distinct character of downtown St. Pete, and with the proper care and feeding could contribute much more to the urban fabric.
The case for a parkIf no airport, then what about another park? Is there an even stronger argument for a 60-acre patch of green?
A grassroots organization called People for a Waterfront Park leads the charge. The group collected the requisite 15,000-plus signatures to place a referendum on the ballot asking voters if they want to bulldoze Albert Whitted and turn at least half of it into a park in 2011.
The biggest knock on the park people is that they are really a bunch of furtive profiteers just itching to get their hands on the property and turn it into condos that stab the sky. Local architect and developer Tim Clemmons, a People for a Waterfront Park board member, swears that's not the organization's motive. He has more than his word to back him up. First, the Albert Whitted property is in a flood zone, and the city's comprehensive plan says that it cannot grant any new residential zoning rights in such areas.
In order to build condos, St. Petersburg would have to change its comprehensive plan and get approval from the state Department of Community Affairs. "Mayor Baker is pretty well connected," Clemmons says. "Could he pull the strings to get the city's comprehensive plan changed, and then get the state to agree? Possibly."
But then a developer would face an even stiffer challenge. The city charter says that none of its waterfront property can be sold without voter approval. "That just won't fly," Clemmons says. "The perception is that you'd be selling off public land to enrich a few developers. There's no support for that. You might get three percent of the vote for a mixed-use community down there."
Like the airport supporters, the park people say their cause has a strong historical precedent. Clemmons explains that in 1906, at the height of the industrial revolution, St. Petersburg decided to establish a waterfront park system in areas that had been used for shipping and industry. "In my opinion, that's the single most important decision made in the history of the city," Clemmons says. "In essence, it created the type of city St. Pete became. Most towns looked to grow their industrial base on the waterfront, but St. Pete said, 'Let's do something different here.' It gave rise to the leisure, tourist-based economy that's been the basis of things for a hundred years."
Further, the park people maintain that there is no glut of seaside green. In fact, they say, half of the land that once made up waterfront parks has been turned over to other uses, including a large tract south of Central Avenue (which includes the airport).
OK, but 60 more acres? North Shore, Straub and Vinoy parks flourish, but don't appear to be overstressed. They provide plenty of space for strolls, picnics, volleyball games and a variety of downtown events, from the Tampa Bay Blues Festival to Ribfest. Perhaps another waterfront park would increase the city's capacity to host more such events, but one wonders if there is really a need for that — especially if that means the demise of the city's only airport.
Not a good place for a parkLet's look at the peril that could result from turning Albert Whitted into a park. "I would only hope that the voters get to see some of the problems that can arise out of a vote to close the airport," says Bill Roeller, aviation programs administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in Tampa.
Let's take a whiff of problem number one: A city sewage treatment plant sits on the southeast corner of the airport. The two entities have developed an easy, if queasy, cohabitation. The plant smells like shit, and so do parts of the airport, depending on which way the wind blows. Airport proponents say they're willing to live with the stench. They're pretty much used to it.
But how would parkgoers react to the pungency? Clearly, the stench needs to go. A city-sponsored study by Parsons Engineering recommended rerouting flow from the airport to St. Petersburg's other three sewage plants. Construction cost: roughly $120-million.
Albert Whitted's ground is polluted, too. Any new park would require an extensive cleanup. Decades ago, fuel and oil were routinely dumped throughout the facility. During WWII, military personnel doused the gravel runway with oil to keep down the dust. One of the reasons the new terminal project was scuttled was that it cost $380,000 to clean up just one acre of the foul land. No one can say how much a 60-acre decontamination would cost, but common sense says it would run well into the millions of dollars.
Then there's the price of building and maintaining a new park. On Aug. 29, the city released estimates that said it would cost $11.6-million to decommission the airport, plus $17-million to turn half the land into a park. (These figures don't include environmental cleanup or solving the sewage plant problem.) City staff has estimated $5,485 an acre for park upkeep ($330,000 annually).
If transforming the airport into a park is not daunting enough, there's the dreaded threat of legal battles. Since 1984, the city has accepted $2.5-million in grants from the FAA, most recently $516,276 in 2001 to improve runway lights. With the acceptance of each new grant, the city agrees to keep the airport in place for 20 years. The current commitment is until 2021.
One solution floated by airport opponents is merely to pay back the FAA's grant money. The agency, in turn, says it has no provisions for such reimbursements. It says Albert Whitted is a vital link in the general aviation chain and it simply wants the airport to stay open. If the city moves to eliminate Albert Whitted, voter approval or not, the FAA would likely withhold payments on existing grants and issuance of all further grants, causing Whitted to decline even more until 2011. Worse yet, a letter from David Bennett, the FAA's director of Airport Safety Standards, to Ruth Varn, then-chairman of the airport advisory committee, said the federal agency could "[seek] a court order for specific performance of the grant obligation to maintain the facility as a public use airport for 20 years."
Does the city really want to go a few rounds in court with a powerful federal agency?
Then there's the state of Florida. The city has taken about $6-million in grants from the Department of Transportation. Unlike the FAA, the state has provisions for grant repayment, but, says the DOT's Roeller, "If they close it down, it could involve a massive audit, and that might end up in court."
"The city can expect to have tremendous amount of lawsuits for many years to come, which they're not likely to win," says Ron Methot, owner of Bay Air Flying Service. "It's almost asinine to go down that path."
In all, St. Petersburg taxpayers could end up shouldering a bill that will likely exceed $100-million to transform the airport into a nice but unneeded park.
Look to the futureYou know what would be way cheaper? Spiffing up the Albert Whitted.
In '99, the city used a $250,000 grant from the FDOT to hire Orlando-based LGA Group to develop a new master plan for Albert Whitted. They came back with a price tag of $35-million in improvements, four-fifths of which would come from grants. (The FAA generally works on a 90/10 ratio of grant money to matching funds, while the Florida DOT goes 50/50.)
Where would the city's $7-million in matching funds come from? For starters, there's nearly $2-million left over from the '97 bond issue. (Besides, where would the millions to move the sewage plant come from?) Airport advocates strongly believe that if Albert Whitted were treated as a going concern, it could make substantial contributions to the improvements. Just one example: new hangars would generate more rent revenue. Whitted's waiting list for hangar space currently has more than 100 names.
The LGA master plan is not ideal. It recommends building ugly hangars right on the water's edge. More controversial, it calls for substantially extending runways into the bay, which has caused environmental concerns. The Albert Whitted Preservation Society recently unveiled a rough plan of its own — one that's more public-friendly. It includes a restaurant, a small park and some observation decks. The runway extensions would be shorter. Like the master plan, it calls for a new terminal. The Times has referred to such a project as a clubhouse for the elite. Park proponents prefer to see it as a gateway to the city.
Despite the park people's professed love of green, not everyone is convinced that a more ambitious agenda doesn't lurk. "[The park people] are the same group that trotted out the urban village concept for the airport property not long ago," says James Bennett, a St. Pete City Council member strongly in favor of retaining the airport. "Now they're selling the park idea. But remember, this is all long-term. They'll have quite awhile to push [development]. People break down their resistance over time. Anyone who thinks it will remain a park forever once the airport's gone, they're just deluded."
In the end, even though everyone likes a nice park, it's foolhardy to take on such imposing obstacles to carve out another 60 acres of green space in a city that's rife with it.Political forces at workIn less than a month, we'll know: airport or park. Each side has its strengths and weaknesses, allies and opponents.
Airport preservation has in its corner the unbridled zeal of independent aviators. Their "Support Albert Whitted Airport" signs dot the town. They regularly gather at busy intersections during rush hour to rally passing motorists. They've opened their checkbooks. And these airport proponents have been advancing their cause while the park people have spent most of their time gathering signatures. Also joining the Albert Whitted cause are the FAA and Florida DOT.
Probably the airport's most influential backer is the St. Petersburg City Council, which saw to it that the park people's referendum was countered with a ballot item asking voters if they want to keep Albert Whitted an airport forever.
As for the park people, their grassroots group is highly organized and passionate as well. The Times is their ace. Although the newspaper has not (yet) endorsed the waterfront park, it has consistently been anti-airport in its editorials. They've regularly accused the city council of rigging the game. The paper's influence will be most pronounced among voters who are undecided or have not given the issue much thought. That might be the biggest voting bloc out there. At the Times' urging, they might arrive at the polls wondering, "Do we really need that little airport downtown?"
Whitted supporters are quick to paint the Times as an evil empire, to which its CEO Andy Barnes responds, "The airport backers want to cast us as antagonists and I don't want to play. Our purpose is to reflect what's going on in the community. Ultimately, it means more to them than it does to me."
One thing's for certain: St. Petersburg voters are in for a doozy of a referendum — it will include several questions, including some potentially confusing tiebreakers (see sidebar).
To further complicate matters, Mayor Rick Baker has touted a compromise plan that would close the airport's main east-west runway, extend the north-south runway into Tampa Bay and free up some of the land for commercial development and a public park. Baker's plan recently earned the endorsement of a Tampa aviation company that was paid $80,000 to study its feasibility. Referendum language does not leave room for the Baker blueprint, however, and neither the park nor airport people think much of it.
The time for compromise has passed. A concrete decision on Albert Whitted Airport is in the offing. The Weekly Planet believes the airport should stay. St. Petersburg would be unwise to get rid of one unique asset in order to get more of what it already has in spades.
Senior writer Eric Snider can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or by e-mail at [email protected].