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."