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."