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?"