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Albert Whitted runway extension could pump $400 million into the local economy

Margie Manning

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Albert Whitted Airport is located on 179 acres just south of downtown St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg officials expect to complete a new master plan for Albert Whitted Airport by the end of 2020.

A key focus of the plan likely will be a proposal to extend one of the runways further east into Tampa Bay, Rich Lesniak, airport manager, told a City Council committee.

Making that shift could allow the airport’s neighbor, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and the hospitals and businesses west of USF, to build taller buildings and employ more people in those buildings. That could create a potential economic impact of close to $400 million, according to an economic analysis.

“It’s not very common where an airport looks at doing an improvement like this where you have such a big potential impact off the airport property,” Lesniak said at the Feb. 13 City Council Public Services & Infrastructure Committee.

Albert Whitted Airport, located on 179 acres just south of downtown St. Petersburg, is a general aviation airport with two runways. About 180 aircraft are based at the airport and it averages about 90,000 operations – or takeoffs and landings – in a year.

The last master plan for Albert Whitted was completed in 2007, and the city has since wrapped up most of the projects in that plan. About 85 percent of the $18.5 million in capital improvements from the 2007 master plan were paid for with federal and state grants.

Since then, “there have been a lot of changes in the industry, technology, markets and regulation as well as potential emerging changes that are on the horizon. We hear a lot about autonomous vehicles on the roads. The aviation industry is looking at autonomous air vehicles,” Lesniak said.

In addition, the airport is at full capacity. There are no hangar openings and there are between 70 and 80 names on a waiting list for space.

But one of the most important factors is the extension of the airport’s longest runway, Runway 7/25, Lesniak said.

The runway, like every runway at every airport, has a “runway protection zone”  — a trapezoidal area off the end of the runway end designed to protect people and property on the ground in the event an aircraft lands or crashes beyond the runway end.

Runway 7/25’s runway protect zone currently sits on top of USF’s campus. Shifting it to the east, onto airport property, means he runway itself would get extended further east into Tampa Bay.

“That produces a lot of benefits, not just at the airport, but actually off the airport as well. We’re talking safety benefits, operational benefits and economic impact benefits,” Lesniak said. “From a safety standpoint, the airport is safe, but we’re always trying to reduce risk and bring the airport up to the most current standards. Dealing with the runway protection zone is a big part of that.

“Also because we’re having to shift the landing threshold, it’s pushing aircraft to higher air altitudes over USF and the properties west of the campus, so there’s more separation between the ground and the airplane, which is a good thing.

“From an operational enhancement, this type of configuration allows us to have more length, particularly for aircraft departures. This is important because we get a lot of corporate aircraft — jets, multi-engine airplanes — and because we have relatively short runways, a lot of times they can’t take off with a full load of fuel or passengers. This would allow us to reduce or eliminate those restrictions for those aircraft. That would create an economic impact for the airport — more fuel sales, hangar rental demand, job creation.”

The airport would add about 62 jobs, creating an $11.3 million economic impact, according to the economic analysis. Off the airport site, the analysis projects 3,120 new jobs, and a total impact of $381.6 million.

In addition to the extended runway, the city has asked a consulting firm, Environmental Science Associates, to look at additional aircraft storage capacity. Additional hangar space depends, in part, on whether the city decides to keep a waste water plant that occupies almost nine acres on the airport site.

The city held a public forum on the plan last year, and another is likely to be held in late summer or early fall of this year, Lesniak said. There’s also a website where people can submit their ideas for airport improvements and see the plans developed so far.

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