The city will no longer entertain the proposals submitted to determine the future uses at the 100-acre site of the Albert Whitted Airport – at least for now.
During a Wednesday evaluation committee meeting, the members unanimously voted to cancel the solicitations to select separate consultants to evaluate non-aviation and aviation uses at the airfield as the request for qualifications (RFQ) garnered very few responses and the scope could be further refined.
The concept of re-evaluating the current and future use of the airport was being spearheaded by St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, who said his goal was to identify the best uses for the site through the lens of equity, business and the needs of the community.
Today, the airport doesn’t house commercial airlines; however, it has operated for 100 years and houses numerous aviation businesses from charter flight operators to flight training schools.
The decision to terminate the solicitations comes after the committee was pursuing conversations with New York-based HR&A Advisors, the only viable consultant that was vying to study non-aviation uses at the airfield site, and with Kimley-Horn, the sole respondent to tackle the study on the existing economic impact of the airport and the future economic impact based on aviation uses.
The city’s reasoning for the desired cancellation was not stated to the committee, but the members discussed issues regarding the solicitation process and casted votes.
“I was disappointed to see we didn’t have a broad response to the RFQ and that leads to the question of why there weren’t more entities interested,” City Development Managing Director Joe Zeoli said as the committee first discussed canceling the RFQ related to the economic impact study jointly tied to the study of aviation uses.
“Kimley-Horn is a very qualified firm and I certainly think they can do the scope of work,” Zeoli said, noting he could either support extending the time for responses or resetting the table and ensuring there’s a proper scope.
Brian Caper, manager of public-private partnerships for the city, echoed similar comments in how he expected the RFQ to generate more candidates while acknowledging that Kimley-Horn is a qualified and vetted firm.
Albert Whitted Airport Director Richard Lesniak provided insight into why there may be hesitation from consultants.
“Most of them told me they look at this as being involved in a process that may shut the airport down and to them, they don’t want that on their record,” Lesniak said, stating he spoke with consultants at conferences informing them about the opportunity. “My concern would be we reissue this, and no one responds to it.”
“If a firm is that concerned, my perspective is I’m glad they didn’t submit because we want an objective look. We aren’t trying to steer the discussion. We are looking for facts and data,” Zeoli said, also sharing the same concern with others that if the new request is advertised, it may yield the same outcome and it would be best to consult with Procurement Director David Malone to curate a revised scope for an RFQ or RFI (request for information).
Caper said the solicitation could be reworked into a single RFQ or RFI.
“If we do decide to hit the reset button on it, is there value in just doing a single RFI and having one firm cover the aviation and non-aviation uses?” Caper said, explaining that combining both studies into one RFI or RFQ may help firms become less apprehensive.
Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Committee member Walt Driggers reminded the committee that the city is still bounded by a federal agreement. In 2021, the city received grant funds from the Federal Aviation Authority, and the FAA’s language for the grant included the stipulation that the City of St. Petersburg must maintain the airport for at least 20 years.