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City offers a sneak peek at changes for Albert Whitted Airport

Margie Manning

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St. Pete officials have kicked off a process to make changes at Albert Whitted Airport that could have a major economic impact on the city.

An open house Wednesday night was the first chance for public input on a new master plan that could shift and extend a runway at the downtown city-owned airport.

Rich Lesniak, airport manager, explains the master plan at an open house.

That change could generate nearly $400 million in annual economic output for the region and the city, supporting 3,200 new jobs, according to a study last year by GAI Consultants Inc. One of the biggest impacts would be at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where there could be an additional 630,000 square feet of non-residential development, the study found.

At issue is Runway 7-25, an east-west runway. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates every airport runway have a “runway protection zone.”  For Runway 7-25, that zone currently is west of the airport, on USF St. Pete property.

“We can’t control it, we can’t own it. So the next big thing is to shift the runway protection zone onto airport property,” said Rich Lesniak, airport manager. “By doing that it causes a chain reaction to happen. The landing threshold would then have to be pushed further to the east, but to maintain a minimum operational length, we have to extend the runway, so it’s like a chain reaction.”

The move has two benefits. Shifting the runway to the east means airplanes coming from the west could fly higher before landing, so USF St. Pete could build taller buildings.

“There are more vertical development opportunities that they don’t have now. They are getting landlocked and the only option they might have is to build higher,” Lesniak said.

The economic development study found that with restraints removed, five USF St. Pete buildings that are currently one or two stories in height and have a total of about 200,000 square feet could be expanded or redeveloped to range in height from four stories to 10 stories with a total of 830,000 square feet.

A longer runway would also benefit airport customers.

“We get small and medium sized jets and a lot of those airplanes, because of our shorter runways, might not be able to take off with a full load of fuel or passengers because they are penalized,” Lesniak said.

For instance, a chartered flight to Memphis from Albert Whitted might have a make a stop in Birmingham, Alabama because it can’t hold enough fuel at takeoff in St. Pete, said Jack Tunstill, chairman of the airport’s advisory committee.

A longer runway won’t change the type of aircraft using Albert Whitted, Tunstill said.

“If we have a twin engine airplane pull up here, six guys in business suits get off, they’re not going to the beach. This is a commercial airport. It’s not what’s called a commercial service, that’s a place like Tampa, St. Pete International. They’ve got airline service. We are not interested in that. We don’t have the infrastructure to take care of it. We don’t have the runway length to take care of it, even if we were to build the longer runway,” Tunstill said.

Separately, the airport is facing a crunch in hangar space.

“We are at 100 percent occupancy in terms of hangar space. We have a waiting list of about 70 names on it now. Most of them are privately owned or owned businesses that want to base their planes here. We have about 180 based airplanes now,” Lesniak said. “ We’re pretty landlocked. There’s not a lot of room to expand.”

The airport could get an additional eight acres to build new hangars if the wastewater treatment plan on airport property were to close permanently, Lesniak said. While that decision would be made separately by city officials, the master plan process will consider the potential benefits of closing the plant.

The new master plan also will take into account ongoing efforts in the city for sustainability and resiliency, Lesniak said.

Extending and lengthening the runway would cost about $12.5 million, according to a 2016 feasibility study. The FAA would pay 90 percent of the cost, with the Florida Department of Transportation picking up another 8 percent. That would leave about $250,000 for the city to pay.

A few dozen people turned out for the Wednesday night open house. Another public open house is expected to take place in six to eight months.

“In the next phases we’ll start creating what we think the future airport will look like. By the time we have the next open house, we’ll actually be showing what we think the future would be,” Lesniak said.

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